Who Watches the Watchdogs? Who knows?

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February 19, 2011; Source: Montreal Gazette | This story from the Montreal Gazette feels like Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First?" routine. The city of Montreal's comptroller, Pierre Reid, has been conducting an undercover investigation of Montreal's city auditor general, Jacques Bergeron, as part of a secret surveillance operation to verify anonymous allegations of impropriety.

At the same time, Bergeron was investigating Accesum Inc., the company that runs the city's parking authority. Reid is a member of the board of Accesum and a member of the audit committee responsible for the company's financial reporting.

Through the comptroller's secret investigation, Reid was able to look at Bergeron's emails about the auditor general's investigation of Accesum and Reid. Bergeron figured out that his emails were being intercepted and protested to the city council that Reid was surveilling emails to discredit the probe on Accesum.

Where's the nonprofit in this? It lies right at the heart of the story. Bergeron's investigation was prompted by a scheduled $31.7 million outstanding advance paid by Stationnement de Montreal, the city's parking authority, to the Public Bike System, the nonprofit managing Montreal's bike-sharing program. The parking authority apparently already owed the city $42.5 million from 2009, due in 2010, but because of the advance to the bike program, it couldn't pay the city.

The nonprofit Bike System says that it has already repaid the advance from private financing it secured, making the issue of the parking authority's ability to pay the city moot, and it doesn't know when – or apparently why – Bergeron launched his investigation. The city has absolved Reid of conflict of interest, though Reid isn't talking to the Gazette.

Who's on first? What's on second? And the nonprofit Bike System seems to be channeling I Don't Know on third. But the bigger issue in governance is, as Roman poet Juvenal once asked, Who's guarding the guards or watching the watchdogs? When the public auditors and investigators play out their own personal and political agendas over the bodies of nonprofits, the credibility of public sector oversight suffers.—Rick Cohen