Essica Leeder, Ottawa (Globe and Mail) – A high-ranking Mountie ensnared in the RCMP pension scandal said the House of Commons’ top legal officer privately offered her a chance to avoid becoming “roadkill” in a campaign to have her cited for contempt of Parliament.
The proposal by veteran law clerk Rob Walsh would have required that deputy commissioner Barbara George publicly admit that she misled the House public-accounts committee in repeated testimony last year, and apologize to committee members.
“He said you should read out a statement and you should acknowledge that you misled the committee and you should apologize for that,” Ms. George told The Globe and Mail during a four-hour interview at her Ottawa home. “And he said if you were to do that, we would do our best. It would be painful for you, but we would do our best to ensure it wouldn’t be a blood sport this time.”
Ms. George, who attended the meeting with her lawyer, said she was shocked when Mr. Walsh told her there were “two systems of justice in Canada … the one where you go into a court and both parties are heard. … He said the other system is that we have our committees.
“We work under parliamentary law. We are entities unto ourselves. He said we hear witnesses, we decide who we believe. Others, he said, we don’t believe them. When we don’t believe them, he said, there are consequences,” she recalled.
“He said … we don’t always get it right. Sometimes, he said, you know what, there’s roadkill.”
Ms. George, a 29-year veteran of the RCMP, said she refused to consider backing down before the committee even though her reputation and career have been hurt by the public battle over her testimony.
“I never did lie or mislead,” she said.
Ms. George, 57, was the highest-ranking female Mountie and considered to be a serious contender to replace former commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli, before her steep fall from favour began last year when she was asked to appear before the parliamentary committee to testify about an internal scandal that had shaken the RCMP and created a crisis in public confidence.
The scandal unfolded between 2000 and 2005, and included transfers of several million dollars from the RCMP’s pension and insurance funds to pay for commissions or products that had little or no value and to pay the wages of employees’ friends and relatives hired as temporary staff. Whistle-blowers alleged that several high-ranking Mounties, including Ms. George, knew about the improprieties before they became public and engaged in a cover-up effort to protect their colleagues.
The scandal led Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day last year to appoint an independent investigator to recommend how to restore accountability to the federal police force.
Ms. George said she was shocked when the whistle-blowers – who allege she had a pension-scandal investigator removed from the case in June of 2005, when he began probing her department – tied her to the cover-up.
Ms. George said that as head of human resources at the force, she was supportive of the investigation, which involved portions of her department. She said she presumed it would help clear up any lingering suspicions surrounding her employees’ work under her predecessor, who was implicated in the scandal.
In fact, Ms. George said when she was originally asked to testify about the pension issues in February of 2007, she envisioned she might get “a pat on the back” for helping clean up her department.
Instead of fielding the questions about new accountability systems that she had anticipated, Ms. George found herself the target of heated questions over whether she attempted to cover up wrongdoing in her department by lobbying for the removal of investigator Sergeant Mike Frizzell.
Ms. George denied having the investigator removed during her first testimony. Regardless, she was suspended from her job for eight months last year when interim commissioner Bev Busson launched her own investigation into whether Ms. George lied to the committee and was involved in a cover-up.
During her suspension, Ms. George testified before the committee two more times in April of 2007 about the investigator’s dismissal. Both times, she continued to deny the allegations.
When the results of the RCMP’s investigation were made public last December, Ms. George was not found guilty of any criminal or internal charges. The force not only reinstated her, but issued a public apology.
In spite of that, the Commons committee continued to be troubled by what it deemed “inconsistencies” in her testimony. She was invited to clear up those inconsistencies during her fourth testimony, given last December, shortly after she returned to work.
Still, committee members were not satisfied that Ms. George was telling the truth. After a series of in-camera meetings, they voted unanimously in February to recommend she be held in contempt of Parliament. If the full House agrees, it will mark the first time since 1913 that an individual has been found in contempt.
Until then, Ms. George will continue to try to clear her name, an effort that has been made difficult by the fact that the committee operates under parliamentary privilege. Witnesses cannot appeal its decisions.
Ms. George’s husband, Tom Maybee, a 35-year veteran of the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, has spent months canvassing legal and parliamentary experts, in disbelief over his wife’s lack of recourse.
“We’ve given our life to civil service,” Mr. Maybee said, adding that two of the couple’s sons (one is an RCMP member in Duncan, B.C., and another recently wrote the RCMP training exam) were once on track to do the same.
In a last-ditch attempt to get help, Mr. Maybee contacted their local MP in Ottawa-Orleans, Royal Galipeau. Mr. Galipeau, who did not return messages, arranged last week’s meeting with Ms. George, her lawyer, and the law clerk, Mr. Walsh. Mr. Walsh was present during much of Ms. George’s testimony to the public-accounts committee and advised the committee on how to proceed with the contempt issue.
Reached at his Ottawa home yesterday, Mr. Walsh, who has been the Commons law clerk since 1999, was reluctant to discuss his recollections of the meeting.
“It’s not my practise as legal counsel participating in prior meetings to talk about them after meetings,” he said.
However, Mr. Walsh said he was not acting as a spokesman for the public-accounts committee and “I never offered any deal” to Ms. George. He acknowledged using “the term” roadkill, but said “it was not with reference to her.” He would not elaborate.
“Obviously there’s a misrepresentation of my view of what was said. I can’t comment about the discussions any further than that,” he said.
Ms. George said she has been the subject of “an out and out persecution. I’ve been tried and condemned in the public eye. I can’t get this issue brought into a court … where I think it should be. I’ve got this for the rest of my life.”
She said the ordeal has affected her prospects for work when she leaves the force: Headhunters that sought her out for jobs before the scandal broke have stopped calling.
“I’ve lost a lot,” she said, adding that her treatment by the committee “seems to be a blatant disregard for a citizen’s rights, a citizen’s life, a citizen’s well being.
“Every Canadian is in jeopardy of this other system of justice, which as far as I can see, operates with impunity,” she said.
Thomas B. Hall, a retired Commons procedural clerk, told The Globe he fears the committee overstepped its bounds.
“A committee is not designed to do what a judicial inquiry is designed to do. They’re supposed to find out what happened in a sense of being able to make a recommendation on how to improve the administration of a department,” he said.
“What went wrong here is they’ve almost turned into quasi-criminal investigations. They seem to be looking for guilty parties.”
Mr. Hall said there are no checks and balances in place to ensure committees afford witnesses due process. He said when contempt issues are being considered, procedure dictates that a second committee should study the issue before a final decision is recommended to the House. That has not happened in this case.
“This is the closest thing we have to some kind of due process or procedural fairness,” he said.
Fall from favour
Early June, 2003: Irregularities in the management of the RCMP’s pension plan – contract splitting, inappropriate hiring practices and misuse of funds – are discovered by an internal employee.
Mid-June 2003: Then-commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli is briefed on the problems.
March, 2004: The RCMP asks the Ottawa Police Service to conduct a criminal investigation into the allegations. RCMP members are brought on to augment the staff.
Mid-June, 2005: The Crown reviews Ottawa police findings and concludes there is no likelihood of conviction of anyone involved in the mismanagement.
Late-June, 2005: RCMP Sergeant Mike Frizzell stumbles onto new information related to problems with the insurance fund, and tries to investigate. One staffer, put off by his approach, logs a harassment complaint with her boss, deputy commissioner Barbara George. Ms. George makes contact with Sgt. Frizzell’s superiors and asks that his conduct be addressed. Sgt. Frizzell is served with an order to cease and desist his investigation.
November, 2006: Auditor-General Sheila Fraser reports the RCMP pension fund was marred by nepotism and favouritism, resulting in the awarding of $1.3-million in wasteful contracts.
February, 2007: The House standing committee on public accounts launches its own investigation. On the first day of testimony, Ms. George makes her first appearance and is asked whether she ordered that Sgt. Frizzell be removed and that the investigation be shut down. She denies the allegation.
March, 2007: Five RCMP whistle-blowers tell their story to the parliamentary committee. Ms. George is suspended, pending parallel criminal and code of conduct investigations.
April, 2007: Ms. George appears two more times and continues to deny the Frizzell allegations.
December, 2007: Ms. George is reinstated and the RCMP apologizes to her. She makes her fourth appearance before the committee.
February, 2008: The public-accounts committee votes to recommend Ms. George be found in contempt of Parliament.
Contempt of Parliament
Contempt of Parliament is an ancient concept that has rarely been invoked in modern times.
A person held in contempt can be subject to whatever penalty MPs decide, from a tongue-lashing to fines or even jail time.
Contempt is the crime of obstructing Parliament from carrying out its functions or hindering a member of Parliament in the performance of his or her duties.
Actions that can constitute contempt include:
deliberately misleading Parliament or a parliamentary committee;
refusing to testify before, or to produce documents to, Parliament or a committee;
attempting to influence an MP, for example by bribery or threats.
The last conviction
The last time a witness before a government committee was found in contempt of Parliament was in 1913. R.C. Miller, a businessman, had said publicly that he had paid $41,626 to secure government contracts for his firm between 1907 and 1911. When asked by a committee, and later the House, whom he paid, he refused to answer. He was locked up for four months until the parliamentary session ended.