Judy Wasylycia-Leis promised to restore ethics and integrity to city hall, but Sunday afternoon she wrapped her arms around the man who financed a scheme to steal a provincial election.
Wasylycia-Leis had posted a picture on her Twitter account with Taras Sokolyk, who 20 years ago, as chief of staff to Tory premier Gary Filmon, directed funding for a vote-rigging scheme in the 1995 provincial election.
The dirty trick resulted in a provincial inquiry in 1998, where it was revealed that Sokolyk had taken Tory campaign donations and secretly given them to an independent candidate in the Interlake with the hope of stealing votes away from the NDP candidate. Sokolyk had initially lied to investigators, but confessed at the inquiry to his role in the sleazy scheme. The revelations helped turn public opinion against Filmon’s PC government and ushered in Gary Doer and the NDP.
New PC leader Stuart Murray secretly hired Sokolyk as a campaign adviser in 2002, but was forced to let him go after party insiders revealed he had covertly joined the team.
Sokolyk has since found success in the private sector, holding CEO positions with Canad Inns and Shape Foods, a flax processing operation in Brandon.
The photo of the smiling Sokolyk and Wasylycia-Leis, taken at a community event marking Ukrainian independence at city hall, was on her Twitter account for a only a couple of hours Sunday afternoon before it was removed.
Wasylycia-Leis said she regretted posting the photo and removed it — not because it questioned her judgment to be photographed with an individual who displayed a lack of integrity and ethics during an election campaign — because it revived memories of the scandal and could have been hurtful to Sokolyk, someone she said she’s known and worked with in the Ukrainian community for several years.
"I regret doing (posting the photo) it…. and I pulled the tweet just because I don’t want to cause any more embarrassment to Taras Sokolyk," Wasylycia-Leis said during a campaign event Monday morning to publicize her support for a variety of crime-prevention initiatives. "He’s made a mistake in the past, he’s paid for it and by tweeting (the photo), we’ve allowed for this kind of chatter on Twitter."
Wasylycia-Leis said she had forgotten about the 1995 scandal and Sokolyk’s role in it when she ran into him Sunday. She said the scandal is history and didn’t want to revive it, adding she should have known posing for a photo with Sokolyk would have raised eyebrows.
"With hindsight, perhaps it would have been best had if I didn’t tweet it," she said, but added the photo was meant to celebrate a major Ukrainian community event. "It has nothing to do with the past."
Retired political studies professor Paul Thomas, who is writing a paper on codes of ethics for politicians and political parties, said politicians have to be careful about their public image.
"We expect politicians to be ethical in their behavior and appearances matter as much as reality, and simply associating with people with a certain background can bring discredit to a politician," Thomas said, adding, however, that the vote-rigging scandal happened almost 20 years ago and, as Wasylycia-Leis said, Sokolyk paid the price for his role.
"Undoubtedly there are some warriors in the ranks of the New Democrats or the labour movement who still have a hate on for Taras Sokolyk, but I believe most voters will have forgotten about those events a long time ago," Thomas said. "Most people have gotten over his role in those events."
Wasylycia-Leis said she didn’t think the incident undermines her own campaign or the loyalty of her campaign team and supporters.
"I regret doing this, from the point of view of opening up this chapter. I’m sure it’s hurtful for Taras (Sokolyk), but I have no doubt that my team has any doubts about my integrity."