Hey there, time traveller! This article was published 9/2/2018 (714 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Michael Balagas, who was the chief of staff to former premier Greg Selinger, said Friday he was unaware of the seriousness of sexual harassment allegations against Stan Struthers when he was a cabinet minister.
Balagus told the Free Press that had he known about complaints of inappropriate touching by the former NDP MLA from Dauphin, it would have likely meant the end of Struthers’ political career.
In an interview and in a formal statement Friday — before Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath removed him from his position as her chief of staff and campaign manager — Balagus said complaints never went up the chain of command beyond Jay Branch, who was head of cabinet communications.
Balagus assumes because he wasn’t aware of them, neither was former premier Greg Selinger.
"There would not have been a single second of hesitation," he said. "We would have initiated an independent investigation right away. The outcome may have resulted in Stan’s removal from caucus and the end of his political career."
Balagus said it is not realistic or believable for the kind of people Selinger, who was premier of Manitoba from 2009 to 2016, had around him to not have taken action on the accusations surfacing this week about Struthers’ behaviour.
"Absolutely not," he said. "I believe these women brought it to Jay Branch."
Balagus said he had no idea why Branch slammed the brakes on further action.
The Free Press has been unable to reach Branch, who no longer lives in Canada.
Struthers, who was an MLA from 1995 to 2016, has not responded to repeated messages requesting comment.
On Wednesday, Struthers issued an apology: "I apologize for any interactions I have had that have been inappropriate and that have caused any person to feel disrespected or uncomfortable."
'Balagus didn't ask followup questions to me. He either didn't understand or he did understand and he didn't care'— former NDP staffer Shannon VanRaes
Balagus said he had an exit interview with then-communications staffer Shannon VanRaes when she left the premier’s office, and while he remembers her mentioning problems with Struthers, "that didn’t trigger anything" that would have led to action.
"Even at that point, action would have been taken" if he’d understood the seriousness of the allegations, Balagus said.
On Thursday, VanRaes told the Free Press that Struthers put his hand under her skirt and tried to grope her in one incident, and tried pulling her foot towards his crotch in another.
She said she complained to her then-boss — Branch — who took the matter to Balagus and came back conveying the message: "Suck it up."
On Friday, Balagus denied having said that.
While he had not been aware of any complaints, he’d twice talked to Struthers about his habit of giving women unsolicited back rubs and shoulder massages during cabinet meetings.
"‘You can’t be hugging and giving massages without getting in trouble,’" Balagus said he told Struthers.
VanRaes said she doesn’t believe Balagus.
"I have full confidence Jay took that information to (Balagus)," she said Friday afternoon. "There’s no reason for (Jay) to lie about it."
VanRaes also said she raised the issue of Struthers’ inappropriate behaviour when she met with Balagus to tell him why she was quitting and to ask him for severance pay.
"While I didn’t go into detail with Balagus, I referenced it was Stan’s behaviour for me leaving," she said.
"But Balagus didn’t ask followup questions to me. He either didn’t understand or he did understand and he didn’t care."
VanRaes also questioned why, if Balagus didn’t know what Struthers was doing to women, he would tell the Free Press he had cautioned Struthers about his behaviour at cabinet meetings.
"Why would he do that if there wasn’t a problem?" she said.
Meanwhile, a former member of Selinger’s team, who requested anonymity, said Friday the NDP government had operated on the basis that, "If there was a problem, it would have eventually become public and had to pass the smell test. We would have thrown Stan under the bus in a second — we wouldn’t protect Stan, and see the government fall."
Earlier Friday, a civil servant with the provincial government became the latest woman to allege inappropriate touching by Struthers.
Julie Kentner said she had the full support of her supervisors after Struthers "tickled" her in a one-on-one meeting in 2013, but she still feared for her career. She kept quiet until Friday morning, when, Kentner said in an interview, "It’s my turn."
"I wasn’t surprised that something would eventually come to light," said Kentner, who applauded the five women who initially came forward to the CBC to tell their story about being harassed by Struthers.
"Because these things aren’t talked about, women don’t know about other women’s experiences," Kentner told the Free Press.
The incident happened in Struthers’ office in 2013, Kentner said. She was called to the finance minister’s office to edit a report on a government project. They sat side by side going over the document.
Suddenly, "he reached over and tickled my ribs," said Kentner, who pulled away. It was unexpected and unsettling, she said. "I was rattled. I’d never been tickled in a professional setting and never since."
Kentner said Struthers carried on as if nothing had happened. When the meeting was over, she said she immediately went to her supervisors.
"They were very supportive and made me feel I was backed up," she said.
Kentner eventually decided she wouldn’t pursue a complaint against Struthers, though her supervisors were willing to do so.
"As a civil servant, you serve the government of the day," she said. "They do have some influence on my career."
As well, there were no witnesses, and, at the time, Kentner said she had not heard any other stories of Struthers’ behaviour.
"It would have quickly become he said/she said; even five years ago, I didn’t feel safe talking about it, (fearing that) I wouldn’t be believed."
Her supervisors assured Kentner they would never allow her to be alone with Struthers, she said.
"I’d be very welcome to ask my supervisor to come with me," Kentner said. "This situation doesn’t reflect on me, it reflects on him."
Struthers touched her inappropriately and without her consent, she said: "Any unasked-for attention is unwanted. It’s a person in a position of power exerting that power over another."
Paige Jeffrey, who worked as a reporter at Dauphin radio station CKDM from 2007 to 2011, said Struthers suddenly reached over and tickled her at the end of an interview.
Jeffrey said she had met Struthers several times and nothing inappropriate occurred, but that changed when she was covering an announcement by Struthers and then-premier Gary Doer at a Dauphin seniors facility.
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"I was alone with him in a room, next to the one Gary Doer was in, to interview him, when at the end, he reached over and tickled me," she said from her home in Ontario.
"I was shocked. It was completely out of the blue — I had no idea what to do. If I had shouted out it would have been out in the public, but I just froze. Part of it was you felt really powerless to do anything. He was a well-liked politician."
Jeffrey said she didn’t tell her colleagues at work what happened, but she told her family and her fiancé. She decided to speak out Friday after her mother sent her an article with other women’s allegations about Struthers’ behaviour.
"I didn’t feel any lingering feelings after what happened — I didn’t need counselling or anything. But it was the feeling of powerlessness at the time I still remember," she said.
"And it was a different time period then (from) the #MeToo movement now… I feel like I made the right decision at the time because, when I see the women who complained and nothing was done, it would have done nothing and probably ruined my career."
Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press.
Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.
Julie Kentner has posted her experiences with Stan Struthers on Facebook. While her social media account can only be accessed by friends, Kentner made this post public:
“Many of my Winnipeg friends will have seen this news today, but for those who haven’t, the link is below. Five very brave women came forward and shared their stories about a former cabinet minister known for tickling staff, and I believe them. I believe them, because I was also tickled by this man.
“It happened once in 2013, in a one-on-one meeting to edit a document. I was so stunned that I just pulled away, and he stopped. (I wish I’d been less shocked and more able to deliver either some kind of physical blow or a blow to Tickle-Me Stan’s career, but not in that moment.) We finished the edits, I left and I immediately called my supervisors. They were terrific, but agreed not to report it as I requested.
“After all, I was a front-line civil servant and he was a cabinet minister. Technically, he held my hard-earned career in his hands. And rather than engage in some sort of long, drawn-out, he-said-she-said process, I chose to say nothing.
“The women who came forward today lived with this behaviour over a very extended period of time. It affected their careers, their personal lives. It happened to me once. I’ve come to terms with it and dealt with, and have suffered no real consequences from his actions.
“I was lucky. But other women might not be, and so I’ve chosen to share my story. Know that I am okay, but also that it will not be tolerated, not ever again.”