Tories cry favouritism over Casino Niagara lease
TORONTO - There's still one set of rules for well-connected Liberals and another set for everyone else vying for Ontario government contracts, the Progressive Conservatives charged Tuesday as they raised questions about the multimillion-dollar renewal of the Casino Niagara lease.
The Opposition alleged the government scrapped plans to seek tenders for the Casino Niagara lease to help a Liberal lobbyist who used to work for Premier Dalton McGuinty.
"When the casino's landlord learned the McGuinty Liberals were thinking of putting the lease to competitive bids, they retained the premier's former director of management, Bob Lopinski," Progressive Conservative critic Norm Miller told the legislature.
"Now there's no competitive process. Why is there one set of rules for the premier's ex-staff and other Liberal friends and another set of rules for the rest of us?"
However, Finance Minister Dwight Duncan said the government decided to negotiate a renewal of the lease with Canadian Niagara Hotels rather than build a new casino or find a new home to rent before the contact expires next March.
"To not renegotiate that lease would have involved the construction of a new facility or the acquisition of another facility, and given the timelines associated with that and when the existing lease expires, this was really effectively the only option," Duncan told reporters.
In the legislature, Duncan pointed out that the lobby firm that employs Lopinski is also home to former members of Ontario's previous Conservative and NDP governments, and said the Liberals weren't the first to renew the Casino Niagara lease.
"I also know that member and his party renewed the very same lease in 2002 in the absence of a process," Duncan told Miller.
"We are pleased to deal with firms that employ former Conservative cabinet ministers and also support a policy that in fact his government did, and that was to renew the lease, sole sourced."
McGuinty promised to seek competitive bids for large government contacts as the Liberals cleaned up the eHealth Ontario mess this summer.
Hundreds of millions of dollars were given out in untendered contracts to consultants by eHealth, forcing the government to completely overhaul management at the agency and introduce new tendering rules for all ministries, agencies, boards and commissions.
"The premier said this sort of practice would stop once he introduced new rules earlier this year," complained Miller.
The Progressive Conservatives have also been going after the Liberal government over a proposed 25-year renewal of the lease for the Maid of the Mist tour boats, which the Niagara Parks Commission renewed without seeking competitive bids.
Tourism Minister Monique Smith said Tuesday that her ministry is still reviewing that lease renewal, which she added would still have to be approved by the Liberal cabinet before it becomes final.
"I'm not going to speculate on how cabinet will decide on this issue," Smith told the legislature. "It will go forward in due course."
The Tories note Lopinski is also the lobbyist for the American firm that has held the Maid of the Mist lease for decades, but other observers said the would-be competition for the lucrative tour boat lease has also hired former Liberal lobbyists.