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What is Struthers afraid of?

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The Selinger government has tabled Bill 43 to reconcile law governing two previously independent but now merged cash cows -- the gaming and liquor corporations.

As you might imagine, its a long tedious bill. What you likely would not imagine is that it includes two curious sections -- 155 and 156.

I could bore you with the texts but what 155 comes down to is that it bans lawsuits against anyone within the government or its agencies that had anything to do with decisions to terminate site-holder agreements for lottery terminals or the removal of terminals from a site-holder's premise.

Sec. 156 prohibits anyone from seeking to compel such officials to testify for actions in the past -- yes, it's to be retroactive.

Those are curious sections because the actions being made safe from lawsuit or discussion are the exact ones the government is applying to the operators of Assiniboia Downs, the Manitoba Jockey Club.

Now you might think that as draconian as the bans are, they are only tools to prevent vexatious lawsuits brought by disgruntled VLT operators, such as the aforementioned MJC.

Why disgruntled? Because Finance Minister Stan Struthers intends to pull gaming strings so as to reduce revenues at the track by $5 million a year for reasons that are wholly wooly.

Many people think he is doing that in order to bankrupt the MJC and force it to turn over a $30 million asset to Mr. Struthers' preferred racetrack operator, the Red River Ex.

Like many people, I think that's true.

But I also think that sections 155 and 156 are there for a much darker reason -- to reduce the risk that Mr. Struthers could wind up in jail.

As is well known to everyone except Mr. Struthers, he was recently found to have broken the law by seeking to withhold funding from the Jockey Club on the pretext he intended to change the law in the future.

Mr. Struthers called that a victory. Save me from defeat, I say.

What the court found was that the law compelled Mr. Struthers to approve a revenue deal with the club but he decided otherwise. In other words, he acted "outside his scope of duty."

You'll be interested to know that five-word phrase is one of the pillars of Sec. 122 of the Criminal Code of Canada -- Breach of Trust By Public Officer, an offence punishable by up to five years in prison. The other pillars are not to act in a "partial" manner or be "oppressive."

Well, I think it's pretty clear that Mr. Struthers is partial to The Ex, and that his actions were "oppressive" to the Jockey Club.

To prove Mr. Struthers is guilty on all three counts, however, you might need evidence, to "bring an action" and "compel" officials to testify. Which, of course, brings us right back to sections 155 and 156.

Now I can't say that I know why they are there, but I do know that within the hundreds of pages of documents legal council for the MJC presented in the case wherein Mr. Struthers was found to have broken the law, there is evidence indicating he has been working behind the scenes for several years to oust the Jockey Club, but never let that on to the club until the media got wind of the intrigue in January.

There is evidence people reporting to Mr. Struthers were in talks with the Ex, and that the Ex was putting together a plan to operate the Downs. There is evidence Mr. Struthers refused to look at MJC plans for the future and declared he would prevent them being enacted.

But that's only half the story, you might say. And you would be correct. The government's side of the story is missing. That's because when it went into court it presented no evidence, I guess, because it could be used as, you know, evidence. There are no documents to defend, no witnesses questioned. It's as if we are to believe that nothing happened behind curtain No. 1.

Well, I don't believe that, and I'm certain the Jockey Club doesn't believe it. What I do believe is that if Mr. Struthers doesn't find a way to climb down and negotiate in good faith with the MJC, he will be sued, Bill 43 or no.

In fact, I would bet on it.

gerald.flood@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 18, 2013 A17

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