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Senior staffers were involved in inviting agencies to immigration debate: Melnick

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An NDP MLA recently demoted from cabinet has lashed out at Premier Greg Selinger over his denial of knowledge of an invitation to immigrant groups to attend a controversial legislative debate almost two years ago.

Very recently, Premier Selinger stated that neither he nor his staff were involved in the decision to invite government-funded immigrant service agencies to the debate. The event attracted more than 400 people and wound up leading to a showdown between the government and several Manitoba Conservative MPs, who were in attendance.

But Christine Melnick, the province’s former immigration minister, challenged the premier’s assertion, made just days ago to The Canadian Press, that neither he nor his staff were behind the invitation — and that Melnick had acted on her own.

Melnick said today that senior political staffers, including Anna Rothney, chairwoman of the priorities and planning committee of cabinet, directed her to issue the invite.

"It was under direction of senior political staff, who meet with the premier every morning," Melnick said in a joint interview today with the Free Press and The Canadian Press news agency.

Melnick said she gave an interview to the CBC in December to explain that her undiagnosed illness was behind her initial failure to own up to the invite. She was then contacted by Liam Martin, the premier’s chief of staff, and told it was best not to have further discussions with the media.

On Dec. 21, in a discussion with another senior staffer, Matt Williamson of cabinet communications, she was told that it didn’t matter what she had to say. The decision had been made to "hang me out, in order to protect the premier."

The invitation to immigrant organizations was made in the form of an e-mail from Ben Rempel, an assistant deputy minister reporting to Melnick at the time. Melnick at first denied directing him to send the invitation, when questioned by Opposition politicians. Her role in the matter was not revealed until a provincial Ombudsman’s report on the matter was released last last year.

Melnick said initially she told the public that Rempel had acted on his own. But she later recanted that statement, telling the Ombudsman’s office that she had in fact directed the civil servant to issue the invite. But no one in government said a word until the Ombudsman’s report came out a few months ago.

Melnick said she explained to senior political staff that she didn’t remember directing her department to issue the invite due being ill with diabetes, which went undiagnosed until just recently. She wanted to explain her side of the controversy to the premier, but was prevented from meeting with him.

Melnick said today she learned of the release of the Ombudsman’s report through a Free Press story on Dec. 12. She said she wanted to explain that it was her health that had kept her from owning up to her role in the invitation earlier, but she said her health issues "were dismissed" by the premier’s chief of staff Martin.

Without consulting her, a press conference was organized in which Attorney General Andrew Swan announced that Melnick would apologize when the legislature resumed sitting March 6.

Melnick said she was motivated to speak out today because of the premier’s denials that his staff was involved and that she had not been given a chance to explain herself.

"I’m very, very disappointed in Greg Selinger. I’m very disappointed. I’ve been loyal. I believe I’ve been a hard-working minister and MLA. And I have been part of the team," she said.

Late this afternoon, hearing about the allegations raised by Melnick, a cabinet spokesman issued the following response:

"Christine Melnick's claim that she did not direct the civil service to email the invite has proven false. Her accusations today are also false. Her previous explanation for making false statements was undiagnosed diabetes. Today she is blaming staff. It's no secret that several MLAs and staff were involved in getting the word out about the debate in the chamber. Ms. Melnick is the only one to have directed civil servants to send an email and then claim she did not."

Melnick said she has no plans to leave caucus and plans to run for re-election in Riel in the coming provincial election.


Updated on Monday, February 3, 2014 at 4:09 PM CST: Writethru.

4:30 PM: Adds video.

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