Anti-HST leader Bill Vander Zalm is calling for a public inquiry after it was reported that the provincial government's HST information office secretly gave work to two Liberal-connected firms and a former senior ministerial aide. But government spokesperson Matt Gordon said an inquiry would be "completely unfounded and would be a waste of taxpayer money." Mr. Gordon earlier said that politics played no role in the awarding of the contracts that paid Backbone Technology Inc. to develop an HST website and Campaign Research Inc. to conduct telephone town-hall meetings on the tax.
Backbone Technology also created the Liberal's website, while Campaign Research worked on cabinet minister George Abbott's unsuccessful leadership campaign.
Meanwhile, the BC NDP's finance critic raised questions on Tuesday about whether the information office - which is trying to persuade voters to support the HST - was too close to the government-appointed panel charged with independently analyzing the tax.
Consultants have said they were first approached to do communications support work for the panel by the information office's head, Tom Syer. But Mr. Gordon has said Mr. Syer's involvement with the panel's contracts didn't compromise its independence.
Mr. Vander Zalm said an inquiry is needed to look into the Backbone Technology and Campaign Research contracts, as well as the one handed to former aide Marc Andrew. He added that the inquiry should also probe how the HST mail-in referendum, which wraps up on Aug. 5, was structured.
"At the end of this process, after the vote is done, we need a [public] inquiry into the whole mess," said the former premier.
He also said he's concerned about what he alleges is misleading HST advertising by government, as well as a lack of spending caps and disclosure requirements for the referendum's yes and no sides.
NDP finance critic Bruce Ralston, meanwhile, took a shot at the way those information-office contracts were handed out.
Mr. Gordon has said they were directly awarded because a competitive process would have revealed information of a "privileged nature."
The critic called that a "pathetic rationalization" and said "the whole thing just stinks."
In addition, Mr. Ralston said the HST office's connection to the panel - whose members were selected by then-finance minister Colin Hansen - needs further scrutiny.
Consultants Judy Kirk and Miro Cernetig both told said they were first approached to do support work for the panel by Mr. Syer.
"I got a call from Tom Syer. And he said we've got a small piece of business to deal with media relations for the independent panel report, " explained Ms. Kirk when asked how she got her contract.
"It was Tom Syer," said panel report writer Mr. Cernetig in response to the same question. "I'm not sure of his title. But he was running the office. And he told me he had a couple of writers they were thinking about."
But Mr. Gordon said "any suggestion there is any issue with Mr. Syer handling the panel's procurement process is unfounded."
"The panel was set up to create a report, not to handle administration," he continued.
"They operated completely independently and delivered a report for British Columbians based on their research alone and nothing else."