05/01/2017 12:45 EDT | Updated 05/04/2017 13:06 EDT

'Beyond bizarre:' N.L. premier under fire after top bureaucrat resigns

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — Dwight Ball, whose 16 months running Newfoundland and Labrador have been one of the rockiest stints of any Canadian premier, found himself at the centre of a fresh uproar Monday.

The Liberal premier came under fire after the abrupt departure of the province's top bureaucrat, Bernard Coffey, amid conflict of interest allegations, less than eight months after Ball hired the longtime Liberal from outside the civil service.

It had raised eyebrows last September when Coffey was named to the traditionally non-partisan position of clerk. The St. John's lawyer had briefly pursued the party's leadership.

Ball's office announced late Sunday that Coffey was resigning, after reports that he'd continued to represent clients in two cases, one involving claims against Crown corporation Nalcor Energy and the other against Western Health, a provincial health authority.

On Monday, Ball found himself forced to explain — and deny he would be quitting over the scandal.

"I have no intentions of resigning," he told the legislature Monday in St. John's, as NDP member Lorraine Michael asked if he'd step down.

Ball told reporters it was Coffey's choice to go: "He resigned voluntarily."

It was taking too long, Ball said, for Coffey to transition from private law practice to his role as clerk of the executive council.

But the premier continued Monday to defend Coffey's dual role, saying he had put up safeguards to avoid conflict of interest as he made the move to public life.

"There were conflict walls that were established," Ball told reporters.

Coffey's salary was just over $180,000 a year, and he will receive about $2,000 in owed compensation, Ball said.

He said he would do nothing differently. 

"Absolutely. I would do it over again. The only regrettable thing, I guess, is that we just couldn't get to what would be a reasonable transition period."

Ball said he understood up until last week that Coffey would wrap up the two ongoing cases by June 30.

That was a reasonable delay, he added, but it became clear last week that the deadline would not be met.

Ball said he only learned of the Nalcor case through media reports, and that Coffey never intended to represent the client. Ball said Coffey filed the unproven claim alleging wrongful dismissal only to preserve his client's right to pursue the case in future with a different lawyer, and that Nalcor has not been served.

Official Opposition Leader Paul Davis said he was not satisfied with the premier's explanation.

"It's beyond bizarre. It's incredible that this should be allowed to happen," he said, noting it only came to light in the media. "This is a case of them getting caught."

Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch, said the arrangement with Coffey was rife with problems and would have been illegal in British Columbia.

"If you don't prevent the appearance of a conflict of interest, you're not really ensuring ethical government," he said from Ottawa. "The law is too weak in Newfoundland."

In B.C., a premier or senior government official is not allowed to be even in the appearance of a conflict of interest — the only province with such a standard, Conacher said.

Moreover, Newfoundland and Labrador's law is restricted to personal conflicts for politicians and top bureaucrats, Conacher said.

"It's very limited. Whereas in other jurisdictions, you're also not allowed to be in a conflict of interest with regards to matters concerning your family, or your friends and associates."

Amanda Bittner, a political scientist at Memorial University of Newfoundland, said the Coffey revelations raise what she describes as "an iceberg problem."

"Every time a new thing like this pops up, it's sort of indicative of a larger problem that lies underneath this."

People wonder what other deals aren't widely known about until they wind up in headlines, she said in an interview.

"We have national standards about merit-based appointments — and this is not really fitting within that," Bittner added.

"It's certainly going to be detrimental to the public's perception of the ability of this government to actually handle the job of governing."


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