Criminals may be infiltrating airports: AG
Auditor General Sheila Fraser speaks during a press conference after the release of the 2009 Status Reports in Ottawa Tuesday.
By Janice Tibbetts
Canwest News Service
March 31, 2009
OTTAWA Members of organized crime and other shady characters are infiltrating Canadian airports because federal officials are not conducting thorough security checks on employees working in restricted areas, says a report that blames Transport Canada and the RCMP for failing to share information.
Auditor General Sheila Fraser, in a sweeping assessment of national security, noted that a pass for restricted areas was given to someone who had assault and weapons convictions, and was under investigation for murder relating to drug-smuggling at a large airport.
She told a news conference Tuesday that Transport Canada is not devoting its energy to crime, because it doesn't consider rooting out drug smugglers and other criminals to be part of its mandate to prevent harm to airplanes.
“Quite frankly, I think Canadians expect more than that,” Fraser told reporters. “I think that Canadians would expect the rules for obtaining a security pass would be stringent.”
Transport Minister John Baird was quick to react, saying his department and the RCMP must find a way to ensure “convicted felons” aren't working at airports.
“We've got to do a much better job,” Baird said outside the House of Commons. “We're in advanced discussions with the RCMP on a better or stronger information-sharing agreement. If we don't have one within 10 days, I'm going to get our two teams together in my boardroom and I'm not going to allow them to go out until it is successfully concluded.”
Fraser, in two other status reports on government response to earlier audits, also condemned the Canada Revenue Agency for failing to catch tax cheats and found that delays in filling vacancies on the Immigration and Refugee Board have caused record backlogs in processing claims.
Fraser's national security report, which was an update on the government's performance since a 2004 audit, concluded the government has made “satisfactory” progress overall in the past five years.
But she said the continued failure to share information between departments and agencies is still putting Canadians at risk.
Her audit found Transport Canada is withholding airport information from the RCMP, because of concerns about individual privacy.
The Mounties, stung by criticism over information-sharing that led to the U.S. deporting Canadian citizen Maher Arar to Syria, are reluctant to confide in Transport Canada, the report said.
The end result, said Fraser, is that Transport Canada is not checking all criminal-intelligence sources when screening employees who work in airport security areas.
Also, there are no rules that preclude convicted criminals from obtaining passes to work on the security side, and no criteria to differentiate between those who pose a security risk and those who committed a less serious crime in the distant past, the report said.
In a report released late last year, the RCMP found more than 60 employees at Canada's eight largest airports had criminal links, and many organized-crime groups were found working within or using the airports.
Fraser's audit also questioned the quality of Transport Canada's air passenger “watch lists,” which she said could contain outdated or erroneous information gleaned from a variety of sources that don't have access to the lists to correct potential mistakes.
She reserved her strongest criticism, however, for the Canada Revenue Agency, saying it's failing to catch tax cheats in small and medium businesses, because auditors concentrate on low-risk, less complicated files, rather than trying to catch the high-risk enterprises.
The report said the tax collector has made “unsatisfactory progress” in remedying problems identified a decade ago.
More than 5,600 tax screeners, who are spread out across the country in local tax offices, spend too much time auditing taxpayers' files the agency's computerized system has given a low ranking for recovering any money, the report said.
In 2006-07 and 2007-08, the agency audited 87,000 small and medium-sized businesses, only 13 per cent of which were ranked as high risk, with a potential to pull in an additional $50,000 in tax revenue each, said the report. The high-risk audits accounted for 41 per cent of tax reassessment.
At the same time, 56 per cent of the tax returns selected for audit were ranked as low-risk, pulling in 39 per cent of reassessment.
The report noted the federal agency pulled in an additional $2.5 billion in taxes from reassessment in 2006-2007.
The revenue agency attributed the focus on low-risk files to the fact that many screeners lack the experience to examine the high-risk cases.
Local politics may also be at play, according to the report, with screeners delving into files that are ranked as low risk but which they personally believe should be high risk.
Fraser also highlighted a problem with delays in political appointments to Crown corporations, small federal entities, and, particularly, the Immigration and Refugee Board. The report noted the “serious shortfall” in refugee-board members, with a 35 per cent vacancy rate on the board as of March 31, 2008.
“I am especially concerned about the consequences for the IRB, given the high financial, social and human costs resulting from the board's backlog of unresolved claims,” Fraser said.