Sinkhole - The Bruce Chaulk Scandal
What looked bad just turned way worse, for real
That’s the word that probably came to mind as you have listened to politicians the past few weeks when asked simple questions about the scandal at the provincial elections office.
If it isn’t the word you hit on, then you will quickly agree it best describes the way Premier Andrew Furey and Speaker Derek Bennett behaved.
Even though they have jobs that make them responsible for cleaning up a very large mess, the pair have been trying to shift responsibility to something or someone else.
Bennett’s defensiveness was clear in the way he blamed the rules rather than take responsibility for his actions. Asked why he had been sitting for at least two months on a report into accusations of bullying and harassment at the elections office, Bennett said the law doesn’t say anything about how fast he has to deal with the report.
Just to make sure everyone is clear on the context here, the report had taken the better part of a year for the Citizens’ Representative to finish. Bennett had said nothing publicly in the meantime of the accusations that triggered the investigation. Nor had Bennett - as the official to whom the chief electoral officer reports - taken any steps to deal with what had clearly become a very difficult place to work.
Bennett left everyone in place all through the interviews. If there had been abuse, then the abuser was left with the power to continue. If there hadn’t been any, then the poisonous accusations still did their damage to reputations and mental health, if nothing else. No one escaped.
Since Bennett didn’t do the right thing at the start, he had a chance to do the right then when he got the report.
Bennett didn’t do the right thing then either.
The rules didn’t say how long he had to take to do the right thing, so Bennett took his own sweet time, which as it turned out was the start of the first week after the House of Assembly closed. How convenient for Premier Andrew Furey, to whom Bennett was supposed to send the report. Even then, Bennett didn’t deliver the report to the Premier first thing Monday morning. He waited until a handful of minutes before the official closing time for government offices.
The few words we had about the scandal until last week dribbled out only after Bennett shut down a question to the Premier in the House of Assembly about the report. Then Bennett refused to speak with reporters about anything. Said he wasn’t feeling well. Bennett didn’t confirm what the report was about, who it was about or anything else. The public - the people who have a right to know - got their information from others. People involved in the investigation who went to local media offices and opposition politicians wondering where the report had gone.
Bennett just kept his mouth as tightly shut as he could, letting slip only that people should look at the law. That would be the ironically titled House of Assembly Accountability, Integrity, and Administration Act. Bennett did not seem to see the Kafka-esque joke he’d inadvertently made. Typical of the local politicians and bureaucrats. Most of them likely think kafka is some new drink at Starbucks. The ones who have heard of the Czech writer thought he had written a wonderful how-to manual for government and follow it religiously.
The politicians and bureaucrats in the House of Assembly and in the provincial government would do well to go back to Chief Justice Derek Green’s report that led to that law. Chapter Two is about values that the ordinary people of Newfoundland and Labrador expect their politicians and other public officials to display. Green was writing about a time when the elected and unelected officials didn’t display values like trust, accountability, and transparency. They used public money to buy favours with voters or to line their own pockets.
The values Green wrote about are not just words. They mean something. He picked out three words because they mean more than some of the others. Like “trust.” It means a “firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone” according to the dictionary. We trust friends and people we know to do the right thing. We rely on them. We count on them. To be there when we need help. To look after our best interest and not harm us.
With public officials, we trust them to look after not just our personal interest but the interest of the whole community. Public officials are fiduciaries. People talk about them having fiduciary responsibilities. Big word. Bit intimidating. And in some respects it should be because being a fiduciary relationship exists “whenever any person acquires a power of any type on condition that he also receives with it a duty to utilize that power in the best interests of another….” That’s from Green’s report. Green used the word “trust” 58 times in just the second chapter alone.
Trust goes with “accountability.” The word gets tossed around but fundamentally accountability means someone stands up and say “I did that.” And here is why I did that. They take responsibility for their actions. They own up to things. Leaders also take responsibility for the people under them. Green uses the word 77 times in the chapter on values.
Transparency: 29 uses. Just in that one chapter called “Values.”
Transparency is the foundation upon which accountability of public officials is built. It implies openness and a willingness to accept public scrutiny. Openness and the potential for scrutiny are also the antidote for suspicion and mistrust. When meetings are open to the media and the public, and when financial records and reports can be reviewed and discussed in public, there is less opportunity for public officials to abuse the system out of self-interest or even to neglect their duties. Transparency thus increases confidence and trust in our democratic system.
Not just done but seen to be done. It is that act of standing up and answering a straight, simple question with a straight simple answer. Here’s what I did and here’s why I did it.
Look at that.
Now look at Derek Bennett.
They don’t line up.
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Premier Andrew Furey got a simple question from reporters last week.
“When did you learn the report existed?” or words that mean the same thing.
Heard nothing, said Furey, except for “public commentary and chirping in the House of Assembly.”
That’s what Furey called a question about a report involving the Chief Electoral Officer and toxic behaviour.
Think about the people involved in this fiasco.
Furey blows it off as chirping.
If Furey asked his staff for a line that makes him sound like an insensitive, entitled shit, they would not have dreamed up anything as perfectly arrogant as that.
Heard nothing. Knew nothing either, until, as if by magic, the report landed on his desk precisely at 4:45 on Monday. Now there, he was on Tuesday telling everyone what he would do with the report. Pat me on the back reporters. I am such a good boy.
We held consultations immediately with the attorney general and cabinet, and the leader of the Opposition, and we’ve taken measures to ensure the report — which has to do with officers of the House — has been directed to the House Management Commission.
The royal we.
Cute if the Queen does it.
Pretentious when everyone else talks about themselves that way.
It is just too hard to say “my staff and I.”
Just say “I” as in I, the Premier.
Because really, that’s the only one that matters in these things.
Responsibility. Accountability. Here’s what I did and this is why I did it.
Instead, we find out about what some mysterious entity called “we” did.
Unaccountable. Not responsible.
“We” deflects. It muddies. It evades. It avoids.
Back goes the hot potato to Bennett.
Then Furey focused on releasing the report, which was never an issue.
“In addition, I’ve asked the privacy commissioner (Michael Harvey) to look at the report, look at the letters and to redact information, if necessary, to protect the privacy of individuals and then to release the report publicly after he’s done his due diligence on the report.”
That’s the Saltwire version. Other media quoted Furey as saying that Harvey would “scrub” the report. Here’s the CBC version, quoting Furey:
The report is about officers of the House and some allegations. I'm going to let the privacy commissioner scrub the report first to ensure that he's doing his due diligence and we're not violating any privacy issues with respect to the individuals in the report.
Furey had every power in the world to act when he first learned of the report in the House of Assembly. He may well have known about it before the rest of us did. Had the power then too. Had the responsibility. Had the duty. Goes with the job. Furey’s staff might have known about the complaints earlier. After all, anything that affected the controversial election and the ongoing lawsuit over it are things the Premier should know about. If none of them knew anything, then surely the entire Confederation Building is a spectacular mess.
Sit with that thought later. For now, let’s pretend that no one in the Premier’s Office knew Thing One about this accusation and the report until the day Bennett clumsily swatted away a question directed to the Premier about the report.
Not a thought entered the Premier’s head, if we take his words at face value as the full and complete story. Nor did anyone in his office or any other senior government official think this might be something worth interrupting their afternoon go at Wordle to bother with.
Just some noise and then it was all over. Nothing about that question caused Furey to wonder what people might be chirping about. Furey could have asked the Government House Leader - Steve Crocker - if the House Management Committee knew anything about this chirpy, chirpy, chirpiness. I say, old boy, whot is he on about, like some character from a Monty Python sketch.
Not even that much attention.
Furey could have asked Bennett - privately - what was going on. Furey, the deputy premier, and the Government House Leader could have pushed the matter and demanded Bennett give them the report. After all, they are three of the key people to act on the report when it got to their desk. They knew it existed when everyone else did - Bennett admitted that much - and yet they all sat on their new chairs in the House of Assembly and did nothing.
Bullying and harassment allegations involving the elections office. Issues that affect public confidence in the political system itself, let alone in the individual politicians and in government statements against bullying, harassment, and other toxic behaviours. And yet, both Furey and his Attorney General John Hogan insisted last week they not only knew nothing but did nothing to find out about the report before it showed up on the Premier’s desk last Monday.
None of that displays the values of accountability and transparency that underpin trust. Their comments last week were all as laughable as they were defensive. The rest of us might be able to crack a smile if the whole thing were not so serious.
Serious for everyone in the province, not least for the people working in an apparently toxic environment. They continue to work in unbelievably difficult conditions, including the official accused of being the abuser. Yet neither Bennett nor Furey gave a toss. This is unfathomably callous behaviour by public officials. Instead, we got delayed action in sending the report back to the House of Assembly, something both Bennett and Furey could have - *should* have - done weeks ago.
All of the politicians’ actions were about shifting the responsibility - which they seem to think means blame - and none showed any concern with the human issues at the heart of the whole mess. They acted as if responsibility meant the same as blame. It doesn’t. But if Furey and Bennett and a few more act like there is blame to go around, then maybe we should pay attention to that. People usually act guilty when there is something to be guilty about. If the politicians are acting like they would be blamed if the rest of us knew the whole story, maybe that is where we should go and wait for the politicians to catch up with us.
In the meantime, let us not forget Furey’s distraction about scrubbing the report for public release. Things are bad enough but asking Michael Harvey to censor the government report compromised the integrity of that office. That made things worse if for no other reason than it showed how little thought went into the scheme in the first place.
You see, the provincial government has lawyers and other officials whose job it is to censor documents for privacy and other sensitive issues before releasing them to the public. Furey didn’t think to get them involved. Instead, Furey wanted someone to censor the document whose job it is to keep an eye on how government handles privacy issues. Legally, the privacy commissioner might well be called on to investigate a complaint about the report and the way government handled it. If Harvey had done the job, the only place that could handle a complaint would the courts. The cost alone would be a huge deterrent for anyone - even reporters - who wanted to get to the bottom of the scandal if government officials carried on with their cover up.
The cost for the political system in the province would be greater. We are already living with doubts hanging about the legitimacy of the last election. People distrust politicians. They have little faith in our institutions. They look at the mess in the office responsible for running fair elections. This is not good. Undermining the integrity of the privacy commissioner wouldn’t make things better.
Whether Furey came up with the idea himself or someone told him it was a good idea, the result would have been to compromise the integrity of the privacy commissioner as an independent authority. Frankly, that likely wasn’t the goal. That assumes a level of cunning that even Baldrick couldn’t manage. Might not have been the goal but the fumbling and stumbling almost got us there anyway.
Would have been the result if - astoundingly - it had not taken Michael Harvey almost two full days to tell the Premier and the the public he couldn’t take on the job of censoring the report he might later have to investigate himself. Anyone familiar with Harvey’s job should have spotted that huge problem when Furey mentioned the plan on Tuesday. No one did, it seems, at least until your humble e-scribbler made a public comment about it on June 8, around 10:00 at night. An exchange with Paul Lane the following morning gave the chance to expand on the point.
The news stories are clear he is censoring it. He will delete portions of it. Regardless of the reasons for the deletions, that is NOT his job. He is now part of the process he *legally* is supposed to be separate from and watch over. Tamed watchdogs are useless.
We really don't know what he is doing but anything that involves reading, reviewing and censoring the document (scrub was AF's word) is simply NOT the commissioner's job. Check the legislation. Review Hansard. He is compromised.
The NTV story on Harvey’s statement led its newscast. That’s how important the story was. You could also tell the story was that important because Furey didn’t show up for the scrum. He sent a clearly unhappy John Hogan down to take reporters’ questions. Furey only does the happy news. Others take the fall-out from shag-ups. The one at top sets the tone for accountability and responsibility for everyone in the government, including the House of Assembly as Chief Justice Green pointed out in his report on the spending scandal. Were he to look again, Green might notice how little had changed for the better.
There was another problem with Furey’s plan to release the report. By sending the report back to the House of Assembly, Furey said he didn’t have the authority to deal with. That wasn’t his job. Certainly, Bennett thought the report belonged to Furey. That’s what Bennett told Ed Joyce and the members of the House management commission 20 minutes before he shut down the question in the House of Assembly.
What’s important is that Furey sent it back to the House.
Two things stand out about that.
First, if Furey was supposed to receive the report in his position as Premier and head of the cabinet, passing the report to another body to act on is even worse than just sitting on his hands and letting it come to him eventually. That looks even more defensive and unaccountable. It’s the opposite of leadership. Furey has enough doubts circling around him over leadership issues dating back to the election call last year. He doesn’t need more. But still, since Furey has raised the questions - again - someone in the news media or a politician should get Furey to answer them.
Second, if another office has the authority to deal with the report, then the report isn’t Furey’s to release. Period. So on what legal basis did Furey plan to release a report he doesn’t have any authority to receive in the first place? There’s another huge question that needlessly complicates the issue of accountability and transparency.
Last Tuesday, Furey and Hogan should have cleared up the problems. Instead, they made it obviously far worse. Along the way, the dancing by Bennett and Furey breached rights of members of the House of Assembly. The House is the penultimate form of accountability in our political system. The ultimate is an election. Interfering with the House is about as bad as a thing gets.
Members of the House have a right to see the report, unredacted, even if they got it in confidence. The Elections NL office reports to the House, just like the privacy commissioner and the Citizens’ Representative. MHAs cannot do their job if people hold information from them. By selectively sharing the report with some politicians and not others, Bennett, Furey and others interfered with the ability of elected members to do their jobs. That’s contempt of Parliament. Any of the independent members of the House, indeed anyone who has not seen the report should write Bennett and give him notice they will raise a question of privilege when the House sits next. They have the power. They have the responsibility. They have the duty to hold Bennett and others accountable. They should do it or be dismissed as being just as bad.
As a last point, we should notice the way different news media have deal with this story. NTV, for example, made Harvey’s statement on Thursday the lead story. CBC pushed it down the line-up. In the same way, CBC made an obviously false statement in its Tuesday story on the Furey and Hogan scrum.
Furey said he took immediate action to make sure the report goes to the House Management Commission, chaired by Speaker Derek Bennett, where he thinks it best belongs within government.
Furey may have said that but simply attributing the comment doesn’t relieve CBC of its ethical responsibility to note the huge gap between when Furey first heard of the report (at least publicly heard about it) and waiting around until the report landed in his lap.
This is very similar to the way CBC reported on the start of the House spending scandal. In 2006, CBC broadcast the Premier’s Office’s version of events, giving Danny Williams credit for fixing a problem he had, in fact, allowed to continue for two years. CBC also ignored the gap between when Williams first hard of the investigation and when he disclosed it to the public. In the meantime, he had met with both the Speaker of the House of Assembly and the Auditor General (a future Tory candidate). That allowed Williams to take control of a situation that he properly had no authority to control.
That alignment between newsrooms - CBC was notorious - and the Premier’s Office was a crucial part of William’s political dominance in Newfoundland and Labrador for all his time in office and afterward. It undermined accountability, a crucial role played by the news media as independent investigators and reporters. Politically compromised reporting enabled excesses like the 2008 expropriation and financial disasters like Muskrat Falls. It’s interesting to notice this time around the difference in the news coverage. So many patterns of behaviour are the same in 2021 as they were in 2006 but some reporters are not repeating old habits. That might make a difference this time.
There’s still a lawsuit about the 2021 election working its way through court. The Supreme Court docket for the General Division shows there’s a case management meeting on it scheduled for the end of the month. A report that apparently raises questions about how the elections office ran at the time could have a dramatic impact on the outcome of the case. That may be why the politicians involved - including the Premier who called the unnecessary election - have problems with the investigation and the report. It may have nothing to do with it. But make no mistake: the Premier’s failure to be transparent and accountable, like the similar failure by Speaker Derek Bennett only fuel rumours that ultimately erode public confidence not just in these individuals but in the weighty public offices they hold and the political system generally.
One of the problems we have with politics these days is that scandals like this don’t produce the kind of immediate pain that forced politicians to straighten up, do a better job, or get tossed out on their rear end. Dwight Ball fumbled, fibbed, and bungled his way through another five years after he politically blew his own brains out over Ed Martin.
What Ball created was a political sinkhole. On the surface, things looked fine. The politicians and their brain trusts can look at the polls or some other sign and think they got away with their mistakes. Truth is, those indicators are unreliable. A public opinion poll that shows the Premier is more popular than a non-existent opposition leader doesn’t tell you what the public will do when faced with a real choice. Since politicians these days think they can cling to power without connecting to voters - like the Liberals did in 2015 - they can get a rude shock, as the Liberals did when they ran the same campaign in 2019 or again in 2021. The sinkhole he created swallowed Ball but it almost took the Liberals down with him, twice.
Now it seems Furey is up to the same thing. Sadly, this isn’t Andrew Furey’s first goat rodeo. The legacy of Dwight Ball survived the change of leader. The most spectacular public version was in the election fiasco that is the subject of the current law suit. Now that sinkhole is bigger. It’s worth remembering Furey’s behaviour then because we see the same thing now.
Day after day after day last week, Furey pointed at everything – the unchangeable House of Assembly Act he could have changed, the vagaries of pandemic forecasting – and anyone – chief elections officer Bruce Chaulk, chief medical officer Janice Fitzgerald – rather than accept responsibility for his decision.
When it was clear that neither Fitzgerald nor Chaulk could figure out what to do about the outbreak and the election, Furey fell back on patent nonsense to avoid acting. Not appropriate to interfere, Furey said. He called the election but now he was a candidate in it. Nothing he could do.
If he was just a candidate, then Andrew Furey had no business at a government briefing. And if he was Premier, then Furey had no business dressed like Justin Trudeau circa 2015, reciting campaign lines about the need for stable government.
Either way, he had no business sitting there like a Minder next to the chief medical officer, who grew physically uncomfortable whenever questions came up about the safety of having an election during a massive COVID outbreak. When reporters asked him about the election timing, Furey’s answers were always as self-serving and as wrong as his campaigning alongside Fitzgerald, at public expense.
The sad truth is that no matter what happens in the next few weeks, we may not see any justice at the elections office. The staggeringly incompetent Bruce Chaulk may carry on although there has been plenty of reason to fire him since he got the job six years ago. And Andrew Furey may stay as Premier, doing exactly the same job in exactly the same amateurish way for as long as Dwight Ball did. The two resemble each other so much it would be entirely in keeping with the way the Newfoundland political universe works for Furey to stay until his own caucus lynches him one night.
“History is made at night,” John Whorfin told the Red Lectroids from Planet 10. “Character is what you are in the dark.”
In the dark is where the people of Newfoundland and Labrador are these days, in this case about a scandal that could undermine the legitimacy of the current government. Sadly, what we are lacking in the darkness is any sign of light, any sign of character in our political leaders.
The result will be a very pathetic history.
The result could be a sinkhole so large we will all have to work very hard not to be sucked into it.