O'LEARYGATE: Land development, NDP style
O'Learygate, the latest scandal sweeping over Manitoba's NDP, is remarkable for the disappointing facets of the government and the press that are being revealed. To see how this played out in Question Period has been very disturbing and only The Black Rod seems to be paying attention.
On its face, the scandal is about how Seven Oaks School Divison chairman Brian O'Leary managed to engage in land speculation under the noses of two NDP Ministers of Education, in blatant disregard of the Public Schools Act which expressly forbids land development with taxpayers money. Premier Gary Doer has ordered an investigation into how it happened.
But, as we've seen with previous NDP scandals (read Hydra House), an NDP "investigation" often means something entirely different to the government than it does to the citizens of Manitoba.
It's interesting to see how the mainstream media have successfully filtered out any mention of O'Leary's close connections to the NDP from their news stories. We wonder why, as this seems an important element in understanding what may have happened.
Nor has the media mentioned the previous scandal involving Brian O'Leary, which touched the NDP just prior to the election of 1999 that brought them to power.
Since the media cannot be counted on to tell the whole story, The Black Rod will do it for them.
In the summer of 1998 Brian O'Leary was the principal of Maples Collegiate, and a staunch opponent to the mandatory student testing policy of the Filmon government. The day before a mathematics test at his school, he breached department directions and broke open a packet of tests, taking one away. He gave it to a teacher at the school without telling the teacher who would be in charge of administering the test the next day. The test administrator reported the tampering to the Department of Education.
O'Leary was unhappy at being outed. He retaliated by having the teacher transferred to another school to teach a course he was not trained to teach, and he got a letter of reprimand inserted in the teacher's file -accusing him of insubordination and unprofessional conduct.
He managed to turn the situation from him being the guilty one, to him being the victim. Prime NDP.
There was an "investigation" of course. O'Leary admitted he opened the test packet, but so what, no harm done, eh. Righto, said the education department official conducting the investigation. That official happened to be John Wiens, the then-Superintendant of Seven Oaks.
The other political parties, unfamiliar with "NDP investigations", pointed out that there may be a perception of bias since Brian O'Leary was the campaign chairman of the NDP and John Wiens was an NDP policy analyst.
And the President of the Manitoba Teacher's Society, who should have been fighting for the teacher but wasn't, was running for the NDP in the election.
Pshaw, said the NDP. Leader Gary Doer said at the time he would not even reprimand his campaign manager because the wrongdoing was so minor.
But then months later an independent investigation, conducted by a labour arbitration board, found that "O'Leary exhibited a disrespect for the guidelines that bordered on contemptuous." It noted evidence that indicated O'Leary's actions "lacked objectivity and exhibited bias toward the Grievor." The board ordered the words "insubordination" and "unprofessional conduct" stricken from the letter in the teacher's file. And it let him go back to Maples Collegiate.
O'Leary dropped off the public radar after that. He went on to become the Superintendent of Seven Oaks and the NDP went on to become the government. And then Seven Oaks bought some land, ostensibly to build a replacement for West Kildonan Collegiate. However, O'Leary had other plans for that land, an entire housing subdivision.
Just as before, when caught, O'Leary admitted his misdeed, with the caveat "no harm done". After all, the school division made money on its land development. He passed the blame to the Public Schools Finance Board, which approved the land development at every step. The chairman of the Public Schools Finance Board is Ben Zaidman, who is coincidentally, the former chairman of the Seven Oaks School Division.
The government says the Department of Education determined in November, 2004, that land development was not permitted under the Public Schools Act. Coincidentally again, that very month the government announced that a replacement for West Kildonan Collegiate was needed and would be built after all. The announcement came as a surprise, since the Seven Oaks school board had not asked for a new school and no such school was on its Capital Priorities List.
The Opposition, however, thought it knew last December why the school was being built.
Said PC MLA Heather Stefanson:
"The decision to build a new West Kildonan Collegiate was clearly a political decision. Perhaps this is because former NDP campaign manager and current Seven Oaks School Division Superintendent Brian O'Leary and NDP contributor Ben Zaidman, the current chair of the Public Schools Finance Board, made that decision."
The first day the Tories brought O'Learygate up in Question Period, Education Minister Peter Bjornson blathered repeatedly comparing the Filmon government record (he's bad) to his own (I'm good). He wouldn't even address the actual question, when it was raised that the Act was breached and asking what he knew about it. I had nothing to do with it, Filmon bad, we better.
When the Opposition produced a letter sent to Bjornson complaining about the land sales, he claimed he never saw the letter.
When the Opposition produced his written response to the letter writer, which was an embarassing attempt to blow him off, suddenly O'Leary had to start answering his own math questions.
- Like why did the school division buy 30 acres when the school only required 10 at most.
- Like why at least 5 of the lots were sold for a buck, instead of the going rate of $150-200,000.
- Like why the school division was allowed by the vaunted, trusted, Zaidman-led Finance Board, to engage in land speculation and development that was completely, totally and at all times, 100% against the rules.
Sheepishly the minister now admits he was warned by a whistleblower after all - eight months earlier - that the school division was engaged in land speculation. That eight-month delay was just long enought to finish construction, but, well, you know, these things take time to "investigate." And it will take, oh, another 30 days till I can say anything to the House.
At least the whistleblower wasn't slandered, which seems to be a part of any "NDP investigation".
One of Brian O'Leary's biggest defenders in Scandal #1 was NDP MLA Tim Sale, who sang hosannahs about O'Leary's admission that he broke the seal and took out a test. But then we know that Sale has little regard for whistleblowers.
When he was Family Services Minister, a whistleblower tried to warn him about the free-spending by the managers of Hydra House. Sale ordered an "NDP investigation" which found Hydra House - surprise - clean as a hound's tooth. Sale then stood up in the Legislature, praised Hydra House management to the heavens, and demeaned the whistleblower as a "disgruntled former employee".
But then, two years later, an independent investigation by the provincial auditor confirmed every one of the whistleblower's allegations about financial irregularities. Every One.
To which Tim Sale said: Oh those allegations; we didn't look at those allegations, we looked at the other allegations, didn't we tell you how we limited our "investigation?" And hey - it was Gary Filmon's fault !
Maybe Gary Doer's investigation of O'Learygate will be broader and more thorough than how Tim Sale conducts his "investigations." Or how seriously Bjornson took the complaint about taxpayers money being illegally gambled with in the first place.
Unfortunately we can't expect him to look too closely into that post-socialism branch of economics called New Democronomics.
That's where an NDP government:
- pays twice for the same houses (Hydra House)
- pays $3 million for a movie studio once offered for $1 (Prairie Production Centre)
- collects $1 for land worth hundreds of thousands of dollars (Swinford Park)
This spring the practitioners of this exotic branch of economics were open extra hours, just like HR Block. The total cost for Hydra House - well the management conveniently didn't have receipts for many expenditures, so we will never know.
The PPC deal---with no business plan showing it can even break even, the sky's the limit.
And as for O'Learygate, the school division admits they made $700,000. But the money wan't used to keep the tax rate down, so where did it go? Will the Division be required to forfeit the profits of their illegal venture just like any other illegal business deal?