The ghost of Christmas past could come back to haunt Sam Katz, whose future as Winnipeg's mayor remains in legal limbo.
A conflict-of-interest case over a December 2010 holiday party played out in court Tuesday with spirited arguments from both sides. Queen's Bench Justice Brenda Keyser has reserved her decision until Friday at 3 p.m.
Katz was not in court for the proceedings, which focused on a party held at Hu's Asian Bistro on Ellice Avenue hosted by Katz's office and involving city councillors and department heads. The bill for the event, paid for with taxpayer funds, was $3,084.35. At the time, Katz owned the restaurant.
Keyser has been asked to rule whether Katz violated Manitoba's municipal conflict-of-interest act. If she decides Katz deliberately broke provincial rules, he will lose his seat as mayor. If she finds he inadvertently skirted the law, he would keep his job but could be ordered to repay the money.
Lawyer Robert Tapper argued Tuesday Katz is guilty, at most, of using poor "political judgment." Tapper said his client should only be judged by the court of public opinion at the next civic election.
"This case is not about corruption. This case is not about democracy. This case is about a Christmas party," said Tapper. "It's trivial. It's a Christmas party, for crying out loud."
Not everyone agrees. A group of about 20 people gathered outside city hall late Tuesday afternoon to call on Katz to resign.
Restaurateur Joe Chan filed a declaration in the Court of Queen's Bench last year alleging Katz was in a conflict of interest. After making procedural errors, Chan, who manages the Cathay House Restaurant and has worked for Daniel McIntyre Coun. Harvey Smith, withdrew his motion and was forced to pay $750 in court costs. The complaint was then picked up by human rights lawyer David Matas, who filed another declaration and appeared in court Tuesday to make his arguments.
Matas alleged the mayor knew Hu's Asian Bistro was his restaurant, he knew the invitations for the party came from his office, he knew the city was paying for the party, and he was aware of the conflict-of-interest rules. In his court filings, Chan said the suggestion $3,000 is an insignificant amount of money is "out of touch" with the reality of ordinary people and combating conflict of interest is the first line of defence against corruption.
"The mayor can't plead ignorance, he can't plead a mistake. He knew everything," Matas argued Tuesday. In his motion, Matas argued tolerating conflicts of interest leads to corruption, and in order to be credible on its stance against human rights violations abroad, Canada must be "firm, unequivocal and uncompromising" in its stance against conflict of interest at home.
"It's hard to say a restaurant owner doesn't benefit from customers coming into his restaurant," Matas told court. "The issue of conflict of interest is very important, so important that a small sum can lead to loss of office."
Tapper argued Tuesday for the entire case to be dismissed on technicalities, based on the fact Chan made what he called legal procedural errors. In particular, Tapper said Chan broke a specific court rule that prohibits him from publicly speaking about a settlement offer and came to court with "unclean hands."
"Mr. Chan's conduct in this case is nothing short of disgusting," said Tapper. "Even though I'm happy to deal with the merits, at what point does the court protect the integrity of its own process?"
Tapper told court Chan contacted Natalie Pollock -- who lives in the same building as him -- and made comments about a settlement offer in violation of court rules. His motion brief states Natalie Pollock and her brother, Ron Pollock, gave sworn evidence Chan "revealed the offer, lied about its contents (as to it being a 'substantial financial offer') and then attempted to intimidate the affiants (one who makes an affidavit) into giving a false story that they learned about the offer from city hall."
Matas argued Tuesday it was Natalie Pollock who tried to pry information from Chan. Keyser said even if that's true, Chan should have told her "I can't talk about that."
"How angelic does an elector have to be?" Matas later asked the judge in response to his client's actions in filing the conflict case. "My rhetorical answer is all he has to do is not lie in court," Tapper quickly jumped up to reply.
Tapper's written legal response also said the provincial conflict rules would not apply to a Christmas party, as it is not a council or committee meeting where the financial interest of the mayor conflicts with his elected duties. The motion brief also said Katz did not direct the city to make the payment. Katz believes the payment for the party was made out of the mayor's office by an office manager or through protocol.
"It was a Christmas party. It's not the swaying of the decision-making process," said Tapper.
-- with files from Jen Skerritt