POLITICS

No more charges coming in case of Lac-Megantic rail disaster, Crown says

09/11/2014 12:31 EDT | Updated 11/11/2014 05:59 EST
MONTREAL - The Crown is ruling out further charges in the Lac-Megantic train disaster, a statement that appears to leave U.S. rail executive Ed Burkhardt off the hook.

Following a brief hearing in Lac-Megantic on Thursday, a spokesman for Quebec's office of criminal and penal prosecutions suggested it wasn't expecting to charge anyone else in the case.

Asked in particular about Burkhardt, a spokesman for the office repeated no other charges were expected.

"With all the information and with all the evidence that we analyzed, there won't be any new charge against anyone," Jean-Pascal Boucher said.

He added that crown prosecutors who looked into further charges also paid attention to evidence from the United States when making that decision.

Boucher made the comments after a judge scheduled a hearing on Jan. 15 when a preliminary hearing will be scheduled for three railway employees already facing serious criminal charges in the deadly crash.

Train engineer Tom Harding, railway traffic controller Richard Labrie and Jean Demaitre, the manager of train operations, each face 47 counts of criminal negligence causing death, which reflects the number of people who perished in the tragedy.

Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Canada, a subsidiary of the now-bankrupt MMA, faces the same charges as the three individuals.

Burkhardt was chair of the railway at the centre of the July 2013 catastrophe that destroyed part of the Quebec town.

Several locals who watched the accused enter the courtroom last May said they hoped authorities would eventually lay charges against government and railway officials, including Burkhardt. At the time, the Crown said the case was still under examination.

Attempts to contact Burkhardt at his office in Rosemont, Il, where he serves as president and CEO of Rail World Inc., produced no response.

Raymond Lafontaine, who lost his son, two of his daughters-in-law and an employee in the disaster, was satisfied that the Crown had done its job and he did not point the finger at Burkhardt.

"He was responsible for his company, but it's his engineer who took the decisions (and) who is always responsible," Lafontaine said in an interview.

The owner of a cafe where many of the victims died looked forward to getting beyond the tragedy.

"We hope that the guilty will be punished and that we can return to a normal life," said Yannick Gagne, the owner of the Musi-Cafe. He made the brief comment in Montreal after stepping off a plane from Germany.

A spokeswoman for the town of Lac-Megantic said there would be no comment from the town.

"We will let the judicial process follow its course," Karine Dube said.

On Thursday, the Crown disclosed a second batch of evidence to defence attorneys and indicated they will share more in mid-December, said Tom Walsh, Harding's lawyer.

Harding appeared in person at the Lac-Megantic courthouse on Thursday, even though he didn't have to. He did not speak to reporters.

Walsh said in an interview it was important for his client to attend.

"The spotlight is on him in a sense," said Walsh, who has said Harding intends to plead not guilty to the charges.

"You have to show up in front of the people who have lost what they have lost," Walsh said. "You are never going to be comfortable with it but at least you're there, you're not afraid to show up, show your face. It's an important moral obligation."

Harding suffered a heart attack shortly before the first anniversary of the catastrophe but Walsh said he is "doing much better."

Walsh said the names of potential witnesses should be known before mid-January. He has also said he's asked the court for a jury trial in Lac-Megantic.

The union and lawyers representing Harding and Labrie recently urged the Crown to drop the charges in light of findings by the Transportation Safety Board. Demaitre is not unionized.

They said prosecutors should re-evaluate the case following the release of a TSB report that criticized the rail company, Montreal, Maine and Atlantic railway, for its "weak safety culture.''

The report also targeted Transport Canada for its poor oversight of the industry, particularly amid a boom in oil-by-rail shipments across the continent.

Prosecutors said at the time the TSB report did not change anything about the police evidence that had already been evaluated.

The report identified 18 contributing factors it says led to the crash.

They included the fact Harding applied an insufficient number of hand brakes on the train and conducted an inadequate test before he left the convoy unattended for the night.

Walsh has said Harding's actions amounted to "human error,'' not "wanton and reckless disregard,'' which he added was necessary for a criminal-negligence conviction.

He also pointed to the TSB's findings on Transport Canada and the MMA.

The TSB report concluded the railway did not thoroughly identify security risks and did not have a functioning safety management system — both contributing factors to the crash.

Walsh has suggested a public inquiry be called to examine the disaster, an inquest he said could help dig deep into all the factors behind it.

— With files from Andy Blatchford