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The inside man

Auditor General Jacques Lapointe isn’t trying to score political points—he just wants clean government

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Nova Scotia Auditor General Jacques Lapointe, Photo: Christian Laforce. Republished with permission the Halifax Herald Ltd.

Nova Scotia Auditor General Jacques Lapointe, Photo: Christian Laforce. Republished with permission the Halifax Herald Ltd.

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in the September 2011 issue of Halifax Magazine.

Auditor General Jacques Lapointe isn’t trying to score political points—he just wants clean government.

Jacques Lapointe is the kind of guy who could break into your house, tie you to a chair and take all of your things, but when the police ask for a description, you would suddenly stall. “Um, he’s about average height? Usual weight. Middle-aged. Normal hair—maybe brown? Or black? He may have been wearing glasses. Or not. His accent was… Canadian.  I think he had a moustache—yes! He definitely had a moustache.”

Nova Scotia’s auditor general does indeed have a moustache, and you can bet many officials felt like they’d been mugged by the mild-mannered man behind the MLA expense scandal, a report blasting the province’s fire marshals for “significant fire safety deficiencies” and an analysis of “weak oversight,” fating the Colchester Regional Hospital to burst its budget.

Google “Jacques Lapointe” and you’ll find photo after photo of his impassive face at a press conference desk in front of provincial flags. The drabness of the setting and the calmness of his personality focuses everyone’s attention on his words, often to devastating effect.

Sitting in his nondescript office in a nondescript government building on Brunswick Street, Lapointe shrugs off suggestions he should quietly toil in the background and hand his reports to the politicians elected to handle such matters. “I think it has to be very open, what we do here,” he says.

“I don’t want to make governments quake, I want them to pay attention.”

–Jacques Lapointe

He pounded the NDP government’s “pervasive policy of secrecy” at a press conference last year, saying, “I don’t want to make governments quake, I want them to pay attention.”

Lapointe says he would happily stay in the bureaucratic shadows, but he takes the auditor general’s role as public watchdog too seriously. “If we were just to report to the House of Assembly very quietly, say in camera, that’s okay from the point of view of the members of the legislature, but the people in the province who are affected by the programs we audit wouldn’t know,” he explains. “I think they have a right to know, so for that reason I go directly to the public.”

He deliberately avoids the technical jargon that obscures the findings of other auditors general. “It can be strong,” he admits. “We say it in plain language.”

The auditor general is an independent observer and investigator of government operations. The House of Assembly appoints people to the position for a ten-year term. Firing the AG requires a vote with two-thirds backing from MLAs.

David Stuewe, professor of public administration at Dalhousie University, says public servants are usually invisible. “The rule is, if a public servant has a profile, he has a problem,” he says.

But AGs break that rule. They are bound to make big findings, given their job is to explore billion-dollar operations. Sometimes those are tips for improvement and sometimes people go to jail. “It’s one of the great advances in our parliamentary system,” Stuewe says.

Stuewe, once the CEO of the Workers Compensation Board, was on the receiving end of a previous AG’s audit. “It can be very trying,” he says. AGs can create systems that work brilliantly on paper, but fail in real life. Stuewe says the downsides are outweighed by the benefits of having fresh eyes examine an organization.

Lapointe and his 33 staff are self-directed and prioritize areas with a high impact on public safety, like the report on school-bus safety, and money, such as the notorious MLA spending scandal.

Lapointe admits he was caught off guard by the explosive reaction to that last one. It started as an idea in 2006, when Newfoundland’s auditor general found its provincial politicians had misspent millions of dollars from public coffers, and was bolstered again a few years ago when British Members of Parliament were caught expensing moat cleaning and the construction of $2,500 duck houses.

When Lapointe began digging in the swamp of Nova Scotia MLA expenses, he found no claims for moat cleaning, but he did find suspicious home generators, wide-screen TVs and dubious travel claims. The story dominated 2010. Three former and one current MLA now face criminal charges.

“I guess it caught people’s imagination,” Lapointe says. “That’s not my intent. My intent is just to report it to get the changes made that I think have to be done. Frankly, if those changes get made, then I don’t care how much publicity it all gets.”

The briefest of smiles ripples across his placid face at the suggestion he breaks stories for which journalists would sell their souls. “There’s always a danger that what I report winds up being sensationalized,” he says. “I’ve found the reporting to be pretty good.”

Despite the sharpness of his sword, you’ll be hard-pressed to find enemies of Lapointe—at least, enemies that will speak aloud. Time after time, officials spanked by his findings bow their heads and promise to make the suggested fixes.

And then do nothing.

Lapointe and his staff recently found that government ignored 48 per cent of the AG’s 466 recommendations between 2005 and 2008. “I actually do not understand that,” he says. “It doesn’t seem to be a disagreement… it just doesn’t seem to be happening.”

His frustration prompted him to call a press conference in May blasting that inaction. Premier Darrell Dexter promised to look into the matter.

So is Lapointe tempted to ditch his job and run for office so he can directly control the levers of power? That flashing smile returns, this time accompanied by a short laugh. “Oh, gosh no,” he says. “That requires a different skill set than what I have.” It could also compromise the neutrality of the post for future AGs, he adds.

Lapointe is halfway through his ten-year term. Despite his 40 something looks, he’s actually 64, so retirement will be his next career move. He’s happy that’s happening in Nova Scotia. Growing up near Kirkland Lake in Northern Ontario, he was raised by francophone parents who ran an English-language resort. A childhood among 500-year-old red fir trees seeded a lifetime love of Canada’s wilderness that’s reflected in his office. A rustic Tom Thompson painting hints at his own hinterland and two Ojibwa drawings honour his First Nations grandmother.

He started his professional life 35 years ago as a private accountant in Toronto. After 15 years, he took a post inside the Ontario government. After another 15 years, the Nova Scotia post came up and he and his retired wife jumped at the chance to move to Halifax. His weekends are often spent canoeing three portages deep at Kejimkujik National Park or the Tobeatic Wilderness Area.

“If you can portage a couple of times, then you get away from people who won’t do that,” he laughs, flashing a surprisingly Tom Cruise-like grin. “It’s amazing the solitude you get out there.”

The untamed wilds rejuvenate him to dig deeper into the operations of the government that controls its fate. “If you’re trying to make a difference, this is a chance to do exactly that,” he says.

The next time his mustachioed face turns up on your evening news, you’ll want to pay attention, so you can at least describe Nova Scotia’s unmasked avenger should the police come knocking.

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