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Opposition balks over partisan reappointments at embattled rights group

The Conservatives want to reappoint two controversial members to the embattled board of Rights and Democracy, despite a unified call by the opposition parties to clear the decks with non-partisan choices.

The Liberals, NDP and Bloc Quebecois said Wednesday that Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon should scrap his appointment plans.

The two board members, Elliot Tepper and Jacques Gauthier, were at the centre of a crisis inside the federally funded, arms-length organization over the past year. They were specifically blamed by staff for unsubstantiated attacks against the former president.

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Remy Beauregard died of a heart attack last January, after a particularly contentious board meeting. Mr. Tepper, Mr. Gauthier and chairman Aurel Braun had written a negative evaluation of Mr. Beauregard and sent it to federal officials, without allowing him to review a copy.

That pushed 47 staff members to call for the resignation of Mr. Tepper, Mr. Gauthier and Mr. Braun in a letter to Mr. Cannon last year, criticizing the board members for a "baseless and vindictive" pattern of "harassment" against Mr. Beauregard.

Among other things, the board members had accused Mr. Beauregard of lax bookkeeping and sanctioning funding for a discredited United Nations conference. An independent audit of the organization, which was leaked in December, found no basis for those allegations.

The audit, which was delayed for months, was never formally made public by the organization. Details of other sole-source contracts handed out by the board for public relations work and a private investigator have not been brought to light.

The Commons Foreign Affairs committee called last year for the board to be replaced through a non-partisan appointment process.

"What in effect this government is doing is to reappoint two of the people who were responsible for creating the crisis, and then have the audacity to say we want to have Rights and Democracy move on, and leave the past in the past," said NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar. "It's only going to make things worse."

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff wrote a letter to Mr. Cannon this week decrying the reappointment of Mr. Tepper and Mr. Gauthier.

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"To return the organization to its once proud standing, the government must restore it to its fine tradition of transcending partisanship, starting with the appointment of a non-partisan board," wrote Mr. Ignatieff.

Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe said the board members must be held responsible for the unsubstantiated allegations made against Mr. Beauregard, and promptly replaced.

"It's only since those people have been there that things have been bad. The government has the gall to say it's an arm's-length organization when the members are named by the government," said Mr. Duceppe.

The foreign affairs committee is still expecting to grill Gerard Latulippe, the president of Rights and Democracy, and board chairman Mr. Braun on the details of the audit.

Rights and Democracy was created in 1988 by the Conservative government of Brian Mulroney, with an explicitly non-partisan, arms-length mandate under parliamentary oversight to encourage democracy abroad and monitor human rights.

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