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Donation in work-safety case looks bad: prof

Bristol gives cash as charges dropped

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It may have seemed like a good idea at the time: step away from an uncertain prosecution in exchange for a guaranteed -- and generous -- donation to a Winnipeg charity.

But legal experts say the controversial deal, which cost a Manitoba Crown attorney his career, created the impression that those with deep pockets can buy their way out of trouble.

"It really doesn't look good. (If the allegations are true)... it doesn't meet the smell test," university of Manitoba law Prof. David Deutscher said Thursday in reaction to a Free Press story about the thorny legal issue.

"It just makes us all look bad," said another senior prosecutor Thursday, echoing several colleagues who shared similar sentiments.

Prosecutor Sean Brennan was fired after justice officials discovered he dropped charges against a Winnipeg company involved in a workplace accident -- only to have the company make a $65,000 donation to a charity he oversees. The provincial government determined Brennan committed a serious breach of the code of conduct and ethics that governs lawyers.

The incident happened more than 18 months ago but only surfaced in the past few weeks.

Brennan and the provincial government have declined to comment.

The 13-year veteran prosecutor is expected to file a grievance, the Manitoba Association of Crown Attorneys said.

The Law Society of Manitoba has opened an investigation.

Details continued to emerge Thursday into what Deutscher believes is the first case of its kind involving a Manitoba prosecutor. Court documents obtained by the Free Press show Bristol Aerospace faced 12 charges under the Workplace Safety and Health Act relating to an October 2008 incident that injured an employee at the Winnipeg plant.

The charges, under eight sections of the act, accused Bristol of failing to follow numerous safety guidelines and procedures relating to a blow press.

Brennan entered a stay of proceedings in December 2011, allowing the company to leave court with clean hands. No explanation was provided to the court.

It was around that time Bristol made the donation to Agape Table, which provides programming and food to hundreds of clients daily.

Brennan has served as Agape's board chairman since March 2000. One of the key questions is whether Brennan directed Bristol to make the donation to Agape or left it up to the company and was in the dark about Bristol's choice until after the fact.

Agape Table board members said they are stunned by Brennan's firing and are reviewing the matter before making comment. They haven't provided details about the donation they received from Bristol, including whether they knew why it was being made or whether Brennan played any role in receiving it.

Curtis Unfried, the Winnipeg lawyer who represented Bristol in the workplace-safety case that was stayed, has also declined to comment.

Deutscher said Thursday the practice of allowing an individual or company to donate to charity -- even one without any connections to the prosecutor -- in exchange for a dropped case is troublesome.

"Not everyone has $65,000 lying around to donate to charity," he said. But he admitted Brennan would likely still have his job "if this money had gone to the Red Cross" -- a charity with which he has no connection.

Several Crown attorneys who didn't want to be identified said Thursday a charitable donation has been used in the past to deal with an uncertain prosecution. Rather than risk losing the case at trial, prosecutors will occasionally agree to have the party "pay back" the community while admitting no formal wrongdoing -- and getting a stay of proceedings.

Typically, the donation would be linked to the type of offence, such as a drug-rehabilitation facility or victims fund. In the case of Bristol and Agape, there is no apparent link other than Brennan's connection to both.

The prosecutors who spoke to the Free Press said the best practice is to allow defence counsel to pick the charity, rather than have the Crown get involved.

Deutscher said if this sort of deal is made, it's important for it to be transparent to avoid the type of backlash seen in this case.

"And I don't think the Crown should ever say donate to charity X, Y or Z. It really doesn't look good," he said. "And everything needs to be on the record to ensure it's above board."

Don Boitson, vice-president and general manager at Magellan Aerospace, which owns Bristol, said in an email: "Out of respect for the Manitoba Association of Crown Attorneys grievance process, the company does not intend to speculate on the allegations that have been made against Mr. Brennan."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 12, 2013 A4


Updated on Friday, July 12, 2013 at 7:40 AM CDT: replaces photo

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