Sheegl finally paying for his monkey business

Of all the images that Phil Sheegl conjured during his time as Winnipeg’s top bureaucrat, the most lasting has to be those damned monkeys.

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Opinion

Of all the images that Phil Sheegl conjured during his time as Winnipeg’s top bureaucrat, the most lasting has to be those damned monkeys.

In 2011, shortly after he was promoted to serve as Winnipeg’s chief administrative officer, Sheegl placed a statue of the “three wise monkeys” outside his city hall office. The iconic monkeys — which see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil — appeared suddenly and without explanation, and sat chained to a wooden bench with a bicycle cable.

To many, the monkeys seemed like a message.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES
In 2011, shortly after he was promoted to serve as Winnipeg’s chief administrative officer, Phil Sheegl placed a statue of the “three wise monkeys” outside his city hall office.

Although they can mean different things to different people, the three wise monkeys are largely viewed in western societies as a tribute to the wilful ignorance of impropriety. Was this Sheegl’s way of telling us he was more than prepared to overlook the impropriety of others? Or, that most of us were too stupid (monkeys, right?) to notice what he was doing in the commission of his duties?

If it was the latter, then Sheegl made a profound miscalculation.

This week, Justice Glenn Joyal of the Court of Queen’s Bench issued a summary judgment in a civil lawsuit brought by the city, determining Sheegl accepted a $327,000 bribe from Caspian Construction in exchange for the CAO’s help in securing a $130-million contract to build the downtown Winnipeg Police Service headquarters.

Joyal ruled Sheegl must repay $327,000 — equal to the bribe he is alleged to have accepted. He also awarded the city $250,000 in severance paid to Sheegl when he left the CAO post, and interest, and a $100,000 in punitive damages. The judge will likely also order Sheegl to pay the city’s legal costs.

The civil judgment is, to many who have followed his career, merely a qualified victory.

Joyal ruled Sheegl must repay $327,000– equal to the bribe he is alleged to have accepted.

In 2019, after a five-year RCMP investigation, Manitoba Justice declined to file criminal charges against Sheegl and his associates. How could Sheegl be condemned in a civil proceeding while escaping criminal charges? Civil proceedings do not rely on proving a charge beyond a reasonable doubt; the standard for culpability is lower, based on a “balance of probabilities.”

Even based on a lower threshold of proof, his decision is hardly shocking to all those who felt strongly, from the moment in 2008 when former mayor Sam Katz first hired Sheegl, that we’d all rue the day a shark from the city’s real estate and development industry was allowed into the guppy tank.

WAYNE GLOWACKI/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES
In 2012, barely a year after Phil Sheegl took over the CAO position, it was learned he had sold an Arizona shell company to Katz, a highly unusual and unethical transaction between a mayor and his chief administrator.

When he entered public administration in 2008 as head of the city’s planning property and development department, Sheegl was well known as a close personal and business associate of Katz. However, he had absolutely no experience as a public administrator, a fact that Katz tried to parlay into an advantage.

Similar concerns were expressed in 2011 when Sheegl was appointed CAO, the city’s top bureaucrat and the highest paid public servant in Manitoba. Katz denied he had any role in the promotion, but few believed him; Sheegl was the only one of seven short-list candidates who had exactly no experience running a municipal corporation.

Not surprisingly, while the two men ruled city hall, the ethical transgressions started to pile up.

In 2012, barely a year after Sheegl took over the CAO position, it was learned he had sold an Arizona shell company to Katz, a highly unusual and unethical transaction between a mayor and his chief administrator. The plot thickened when it was learned Katz had purchased a million-dollar home in Scottsdale — reportedly in a cash transaction — from a relative of an executive of a big Winnipeg developer long linked to both Katz and Sheegl.

In 2012, barely a year after Sheegl took over the CAO position, it was learned he had sold an Arizona shell company to (former mayor) Katz, a highly unusual and unethical transaction between a mayor and his chief administrator.

In 2013, an internal city report concluded Sheegl had exerted inappropriate influence over an $18-million land deal with Shindico, another company closely associated with the CAO and Katz. The report said Sheegl had been guilty of “favouritism” in the approval of the land deal and also of efforts to keep council from learning the details.

Although it did not appear his behaviour was criminal, Sheegl’s transgressions were definitely firing offences. Fortunately for him, and unfortunately for everyone else, he resigned his post — and collected a gaudy severance payment— just days before the Shindico report was released.

And then, of course, we have the WPS headquarters. A contract awarded to a questionable contractor, under questionable circumstances that — not surprisingly — was $80 million over budget.

If– and it’s a big if — new evidence came forward in the civil proceeding, there is always a possibility Manitoba Justice could reconsider its decision not to prosecute.

In many respects, Sheegl’s luck seems to have run out. The civil judgment recounts how the former real estate baron refused to comply with demands for disclosure or provide reasonable answers to questions from city lawyers. If — and it’s a big if — new evidence came forward in the civil proceeding, there is always a possibility Manitoba Justice could reconsider its decision not to prosecute.

While we await Sheegl’s future legal travails, I’d like to return once more to those monkeys.

When I first saw the statue, I couldn’t escape the feeling that the monkeys were actually laughing at me, on Sheegl’s behalf. However, now that Sheegl has been held financially responsible for his ethically fluid approach to public administration, there is an obvious question left hanging in the air.

Who’s laughing now?

dan.lett@winnipegfreepress.com

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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