TORONTO - The controversy over a 25-year lease renewal for the Maid of the Mist tourist boats in Niagara Falls spilled into the Ontario legislature Monday, with the Opposition alleging political interference by the Liberal government.

The Niagara Parks Commission decided to extend the lease with the American operators of the tour boats, the Maid of the Mist Steamboat Company, without putting it out for competitive bids, prompting a lawsuit and an investigation by Ontario's integrity commissioner.

The Liberals are already under fire over millions of dollars in untendered contracts awarded by eHealth Ontario and shouldn't be approving this one, said Progressive Conservative critic Bob Runciman.

Tourism Minister Monique Smith told the legislature this was a lease, not an untendered contract, a statement that failed to impress Runciman.

"What she's saying is this is an escape route for us, that we can let them get away with this, perhaps because there's a prominent Liberal insider who is lobbying on behalf of the company that was awarded this untendered contract," he said. "This is completely wrong."

In the legislature, Runciman said Bob Lopinski, a former adviser to Premier Dalton McGuinty, had lobbied the government hard on behalf of the Maid of the Mist Steamboat company to help them keep the untendered lease for another quarter century.

"Are close members of the Liberal family like Bob Lopinski exempt from the so-called ban on untendered contracts? Is that the deal over there?" he asked.

Smith didn't address the issue of Lopinski's lobbying, but pointed out that Integrity Commissioner Lynn Morrison had cleared Niagara Parks Commission chairman Jim Williams last spring of any wrongdoing in connection with the lease renewal.

However, Morrison also said there were "other issues" that needed the government's attention to instil public confidence in the commission, including an audit to see if procurement practices were consistent with government policy.

Morrison's report followed a complaint filed last July by Niagara Falls businessman Bob Gale, who at the time was a member of the parks commission and felt the lease should have been put out to tender.

The renewed lease was sent back to the Parks Commission for review, which supported its earlier decision and sent it back to the Ministry of Tourism.

Smith said her ministry is reviewing the commission's decision and will make a recommendation to cabinet before the end of the month.

Smith would not say if the lease arrangement for the Maid of the Mist would be subject to new government rules that prohibit sole-sourced contracts or if the rules in place last year would be applied in her review.

Atlanta businessman Bill Windsor said he bid almost $100 million above the estimated $650 million the lease is valued at over 25 years, and filed suit after the commission wouldn't entertain his offer.