Withholding hundreds of documents relating to business assistance programs upholds the “government’s pervasive policy of secrecy,” according to Nova Scotia auditor general Jacques Lapointe.

In a report released yesterday morning, Lapointe harshly criticized the NDP government for refusing to turn over 281 documents relating to Nova Scotia Business Incorporated and the province’s Industrial Expansion Fund.

Lapointe’s office had been attempting to audit NSBI and the IEF since last fall. Lapointe said he was forced to halt the audit when it became apparent the government was not willing to turn over the files.

Lapointe said the move puts the government in violation of the Auditor General’s Act, criticizing “certain decisions made at the senior levels of government to withhold from (his) office a large number of documents related to financial assistance programs.”

“Such a restriction on my ability to do my job violates the principle that government is ultimately accountable to the legislature,” he said.

According to the NDP and NSBI, the information withheld was either confidential cabinet documents, or else fall under solicitor-client privilege.

Finance Minister Graham Steele said turning over the documents would amount to the waiving of privileges, potentially opening up confidential information to third-party court challenges — a charge disputed by Lapointe.

But Steele said the law clearly states the auditor general’s power doesn’t extend to solicitor-client communications, citing a December 2000 decision in the Nova Scotia Supreme Court to that effect.

“That is the law of the province today,” said Steele. “And we are puzzled by the auditor general’s statement to the contrary.”

Steele, a virulent critic of denying access to the auditor general while in opposition, said the government has been in talks with Lapointe’s office to develop a legislative framework for turning the documents over. He said the legislation, originally planned for the spring session, will be a goal for the fall.

But Steele acknowledged the government should have acted sooner on the issue. “There’s no question that we did make a mistake,” he said.