May 24, 2020

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Police HQ does not meet burden of proof for commission of inquiry

Opinion

There are good reasons for government to call a commission of inquiry into a systemic problem so grave, so pervasive it requires extensive examination.

Winnipeg’s police headquarters scandal is not one of those problems.

Mayor Brian Bowman has been calling for a public inquiry into the HQ construction ordeal for years. He has demanded a probe — not only into allegations of fraud and kickbacks tied to the renovation of the former Canada Post building, but also into other city real estate deals gone bad.

In 2017, Bowman and the executive policy committee went further, and demanded the province call an inquiry into a broad range of city hall operations, including examining conflict of interest rules and the interactions between elected officials and top bureaucrats. The proposed terms of reference were so vague and unfocused, they were essentially meaningless.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister has refused to call an inquiry into the police headquarters affair, arguing the province can’t launch expensive probes into every project that goes over budget or where taxpayers’ dollars were wasted.

He’s right. Even with the allegations of criminal wrongdoing (which provincial prosecutors said lacked sufficient evidence to go to court), the issue doesn’t meet the threshold needed to call a commission of inquiry.

Public inquiries are expensive; they typically run in the millions of dollars and can last years. A commissioner, usually a retired judge, must be hired. Commission counsel, investigators, research and other staff must be retained.

Months of investigation typically occur before public hearings begin. Expensive space must be rented to conduct hearings. Finally, the commissioner must sift through all the evidence and write a report. It’s a comprehensive and costly process.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister has refused to call an inquiry into the police headquarters affair, arguing the province can’t launch expensive probes into every project that goes over budget or where taxpayers’ dollars were wasted. (Trevor Hagan / Free Press files)

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister has refused to call an inquiry into the police headquarters affair, arguing the province can’t launch expensive probes into every project that goes over budget or where taxpayers’ dollars were wasted. (Trevor Hagan / Free Press files)

There have been several commissions of inquiry conducted in Manitoba in recent years.

Wrongful convictions, such as the case of Thomas Sophonow, have been put under the microscope. A 2011-13 probe into the violent death of five-year-old Phoenix Sinclair and the state of Manitoba’s child-welfare system were examined. The Taman inquiry in 2008 probed the investigation and prosecution of former police officer Derek Harvey-Zenk and the related cover-up within the Winnipeg Police Service. A 1998 commission of inquiry was called to examine allegations of vote rigging by Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative party in the 1995 provincial election.

In all the above cases, there were systemic failures that required investigation; the integrity of the justice system, the child-welfare system, law enforcement and the province’s electoral system were called into question. The problems that arose in those cases required legislative (and other) changes to prevent similar events from happening in the future.

Commissions of inquiry are not designed to find fault or assign blame. They’re not replacements for police investigations. Their objective is to identify systemic problems in government.

If there are allegations of criminal wrongdoing, the proper response is a police investigation. In the case of the WPS headquarters, the allegations were investigated by the RCMP in a lengthy probe.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister has refused to call an inquiry into the police headquarters affair, arguing the province can’t launch expensive probes into every project that goes over budget or where taxpayers’ dollars were wasted.

Not all police investigations lead to court proceedings. Sometimes there is insufficient evidence to proceed.

There is a two-pronged test for prosecutors to bring cases to court: there must be a likelihood of conviction and prosecuting the case must be in the public interest. In the case of the WPS headquarters, there was no likelihood of a conviction.

There is no evidence, or even a suggestion, that fraud and kickbacks occur on a regular basis at city hall. There is no systemic failure that would justify an expensive commission of inquiry.

The city has launched civil action, naming several individuals and companies it accuses of fraud. That’s the right course of action.

If there is evidence during civil proceedings that can prove the allegations, perhaps taxpayer dollars can be recouped and findings of guilt (under a lower burden of proof used in civil actions) can be had. If they haven’t done so already, city officials can take steps to implement a more rigorous spending-approval process.

Spending millions more on a commission of inquiry would not help protect taxpayers. It would simply cost a lot of money for something that would provide the public with little in return.

tom.brodbeck@freepress.mb.ca

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck
Columnist

Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.

Read full biography

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