Premier’s breezy excuses for rule-breaking ‘oversight’ could create headwind at ballot box
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If she had to, Premier Heather Stefanson could teach a master class in excuse-making.
Thanks to a complaint made by Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont, a lawyer representing Stefanson was forced to appear in court this week to answer allegations she violated provincial conflict-of-interest law by failing to officially disclose $31 million in real estate transactions. In a bid to defend her actions, the premier’s lawyer left no rationalization unturned.
A Court of King’s Bench judge was treated to a playlist of old favourites, including “I didn’t do it on purpose,” “it was an oversight,” “I didn’t know I had to disclose it” and “Even if I didn’t disclose it, it’s no big thing.”
The only obvious excuse omitted at Monday’s hearing was, “The dog ate my disclosure form.”
It is still way too early to say how Stefanson’s alibis will play in court. Justice Anne Turner has reserved judgment, offering no suggestion on how long it will take her to assess the case.
However, if this week’s hearing proved anything, it is that there is no scenario in this drama where the premier emerges unscathed.
At issue is Stefanson’s compliance with the Legislative Assembly and Executive Council Conflict of Interest Act, which requires MLAs to file a publicly available statement of all their assets and those of their spouses, and any potential conflicts of interest. If they acquire or dispose of any assets, they have a month to update their disclosures.
At court this week, we heard once again about how companies partially controlled or owned by Stefanson sold three properties between 2016 and 2019, generating a cumulative $31 million windfall.
When the issue was first raised a year ago, Stefanson initially admitted she failed to disclose the transactions. A week later, the premier claimed that while she didn’t submit the disclosure forms, she did discuss it with Jeffrey Schnoor, the conflict of interest commissioner.
Stefanson claimed at the time that Schnoor told her she did not have to file any supporting documentation. That excuse satisfied almost no one following the story, particularly since Schnoor was not permitted to comment publicly on what he was or wasn’t told.
Despite a fairly solid core argument, Lamont’s legal strategy is still a long shot, even though simply by getting to court, he has taken this further than the vast majority of other conflict-of-interest allegations.
The provisions of the act can only be triggered by an application to an appropriate court by individuals at their expense. In this case, Lamont had to pay $300 to file a court application and hire a lawyer at his own expense.
If the court finds that a violation did occur, the law allows for penalties that include a fine of up to $5,000, a suspension of up to 90 days and — in extreme cases — vacating the offending MLA’s seat and the payment of restitution amounting to any financial gain that resulted.
Even if we look past the absurdity of asking citizens to pay out of their own pockets to hold elected officials accountable on conflict of interest laws, this law has many other shortcomings that drain from it any real practical value. The act in question here is a round peg in an important public-policy issue square hole.
At least, that is what we have learned from the precious few other conflict-of-interest cases that have made it to court.
In 2013, restaurateur Joe Chan filed a conflict-of-interest complaint against then-Winnipeg mayor Sam Katz under the Manitoba Municipal Conflict of Interest Act. Chan alleged the mayor breached the law when he spent taxpayer money on a Christmas party for his staff at a restaurant he owned.
Although it is not the same legislation as the act at issue in Stefanson’s case, it does share certain legal principles.
When the court finished hearing arguments in the Katz case, Queen’s Bench Justice Brenda Keyser found that the former mayor had “exhibited bad political and ethical behaviour” when he booked the event at his own restaurant. However, she stopped short of finding him guilty, partly because doing so would have triggered a mayoral election that would cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.
It’s not entirely clear that violating this law with an act of non-disclosure is worthy of a fine or suspension that would send shockwaves through provincial politics.
Is Chan v Katz case a precedent for Lamont v Stefanson?
The law governing MLAs does allow for a more nuanced approach to the issue of penalties. However, the burden on the court — to potentially upend provincial government by unseating or suspending a first minister — is no less daunting. It’s not entirely clear that violating this law with an act of non-disclosure is worthy of a fine or suspension that would send shockwaves through provincial politics.
Of course, the King’s Bench is not the only court where this case is being heard. It’s also a topic of some conversation in the court of public opinion, and that is where Lamont and the Liberals may see a clear win.
With about eight months before a general election must be held, reminding voters of Stefanson’s casual attitude towards her personal wealth could send a powerful message. And that may mean she is going to lose, one way or the other.
Stefanson’s excuses may, ultimately, be effective in avoiding a guilty verdict in court, but they may hold little sway with voters.
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.
Updated on Wednesday, February 15, 2023 7:48 PM CST: Removed adjective from headline