Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Wrong guy for the battle

Chan's credibility strains in spotlight

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As the architect of a conflict-of-interest case against Winnipeg's mayor, Joe Chan appears to be the wrong guy making the right argument for motivations that remain unclear.

Chan is the owner of Transcona's Cathay House restaurant and a professional associate of Daniel McIntyre Coun. Harvey Smith. He's also the reason Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz faces the prospect of getting kicked out of office over a December 2010 decision to spend $3,000 worth of taxpayers' funds on a Christmas party at Hu's Asian Bistro, a now-defunct Ellice Avenue restaurant the mayor owned at the time.

On Tuesday, lawyers representing Chan and Katz appeared before Queen's Bench Justice Brenda Keyser to argue for and against the idea the now-infamous party violated the province's municipal conflict-of-interest act.

Since the penalty is a one-way ticket out of the council chamber, this case is serious. You wouldn't know that from the circus-like nature of the legal proceedings.

Chan got the conflict-of-interest ball rolling on his own, but promptly made procedural errors. After withdrawing his motion, he took another stab at the case with the help of human rights lawyer David Matas.

Chan then proceeded to divulge details of a settlement offer to his neighbour, former mayoral candidate Natalie Pollock, who posted an interview with the restaurateur on YouTube. Finally, Chan tried to convince Pollock and her brother, Ron, to claim the siblings learned about a settlement from city hall, according to court documents.

While Katz is the person facing a conflict-of-interest allegation, it was Chan who was forced to defend himself against perjury allegations on Tuesday. "Chan's conduct in this case is nothing short of disgusting," Katz's lawyer Robert Tapper told the court, describing Chan as unscrupulous.

Matas defended his client as a selfless entrepreneur who's endured 18 months of paperwork in an effort to serve the cause of democracy. He made no attempt to prevent Chan from making even more allegations outside the courthouse.

With the TV cameras rolling, the restaurateur theorized Tapper could have leaked the settlement-offer details to Pollock, surmising the former cable-access TV personality shares a political affinity with the mayor. "She's a conservative. The mayor's a conservative. How do I know what's going on?" Chan said.

OK, so Sam Katz is seeking to discredit Joe Chan by enlisting arch-conservative co-conspirators Rockin' Ron and Natalie Pollock, who apparently are two of Winnipeg's most sophisticated political operatives. If a marching band happened to saunter down York Avenue at that moment, the oompah music would have been perfect.

Chan's credibility issues are unfortunate when you consider the fact nobody is celebrating Katz's decision to hold a taxpayer-funded party at his own restaurant. But whether the mayor screwed up is not the crux of this case.

The legal decision facing Justice Keyser is whether that spending wasn't just stupid, but actually violated the province's municipal conflict-of-interest legislation. Without getting into the vagaries of the act, that's a much higher bar to pass.

"The worst possible interpretation of what happened here is a failure of political judgment," offered Tapper, the only member of Katz's camp to even approximate the notion the party at Hu's may have been a mistake.

The mayor has never come even come close to expressing remorse about his decision. Since he was first elected to office in 2004, Katz has only rarely demonstrated he comprehends the idea that the perception of conflict of interest can be just as damaging to his office as conflict in the eyes of the law.

In February 2011, after a Free Press access-to-information request revealed the Christmas-party spending, Katz defended the decision by noting Hu's Asian Bistro was a favourite among city councillors.

"They love Asian Bistro. Talk to them. Some of them actually take food home from those events. I don't know why you'd ask that one," Katz said at the time.

Given the dismissive manner in which the mayor deals with criticism, it's no surprise an ordinary citizen got riled up and took him to court. It's just too bad that citizen happened to be Joe Chan.

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 3, 2013 A3

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley’s work has also appeared on CBC Radio and Citytv as well as in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler. He sits on the board of PEN Canada, which promotes freedom of expression.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives


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