The Black Rod

The origin of the Usher of the Black Rod goes back to early fourteenth century England . Today, with no royal duties to perform, the Usher knocks on the doors of the House of Commons with the Black Rod at the start of Parliament to summon the members. The rod is a symbol for the authority of debate in the upper house. We of The Black Rod have adopted the symbol to knock some sense and the right questions into the heads of Legislators, pundits, and other opinion makers.

Name:
Location: Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

We are citizen journalists in Winnipeg. When not breaking exclusive stories, we analyze news coverage by the mainstream media and highlight bias, ignorance, incompetence, flawed logic, missed angles and, where warranted, good work. We serve as the only overall news monitors in the province of Manitoba. We do the same with politicians (who require even more monitoring.) EMAIL: black_rod_usher@yahoo.com

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Cleaning up our Inbox; So long to Frank Landry

[originally posted July 20, 2005]

The city is still buzzing about that unprecedented storm we experienced this weekend.
While it was spectacular at ground level, imagine if you were flying through it.

Well, the passengers on an Air Canada flight have one hell of a story to tell about just that.

As the lightning was lighting up the sky over Winnipeg and the gale force winds were knocking trees over like ten pins, the airport was diverting all incoming traffic to Grand Forks. All except one.

That unlucky plane heard the diversion message, but radioed back that she was coming in. There had been a loud crash on that plane and they didn't know what caused it.

The plane was being knocked about the sky by the strong winds and the passengers were alternately crying hysterically and praying. The flight was given clearance to land, and it did.

Then it sat on the tarmack for three hours until airport crews felt it was safe enough to reach the aircraft.
*****************
We learned this week just how much City Entomologist Taz Stuart has been conning the citizens of Winnipeg and the city councillors, who are supposed to be his bosses.

The Black Rod has reported that Taz had no intention of fogging for mosquitoes no matter how bad the infestation got. But even we couldn't have guessed that he would go as far as lying to the public and to council.

Only now have we discovered that mosquito counts in West Kildonan in June were in the 500 per trap per night range. Taz had been peddling a figure of about 100. On T.V. he said, without shame, that he was just averaging the city figure and anyway, mosquito counts don't count in his mystical method of determining when to fog (because the answer is always NEVER, SUCKER...ed.)

Now that the province has ordered mass fogging because of the extreme risk of West Nile, can someone explain why Taz has been allowed to play God and determine that the people of West Kildonan should be put at greater risk than the rest of the city just because he refuses to put the health of human beings ahead of the health of mosquitoes?

And who is going to ask whether Taz's biggest fan, Mayor Sam Katz, knew that Taz was lying to the public about the mosquito counts?

Oops, how can anyone? Once again, the mayor is not in town when there is a major problem.

Last year asbestos laden smoke wafted throughout the Disraeli Freeway and Point Douglas neighborhoods, businesses on Higgins were told the city would not accept any claims for loss of business due to the street being closed down for weeks, and Sluggin' Sam ? He was in Boston when the Cold Storage building burned down.

Then when the radical fringe and pack journalists tried to inflame the tensions between the native community and the police after Matthew Dumas was shot while being apprehended, Katz was in the Philippines (February 2005).

Anyway, this time he is rumoured to be in Phoenix where a heat wave has killed 11 people but where West Nile is nowhere to be found.
*************
Perhaps Katz is just suffering from bad advice since his former campaign manager Hugh McFadyen left his side to take the nomination to run for the Conservatives in Winnipeg South in the next federal election. In the meantime, however, McFadyen has been hired by the provincial Conservatives, to beef up their urban policy and whisper sweet nothings in Stu Murray's ear.

People who have dealt with Hugh say he's a nice guy. The only bad mark on his record is the fact he was the local organizer for federal Tory leadership contender Belinda Stronach.

Oh well, he's not the only one she seduced and abandoned.The local Tories just finished parting ways with communications director Tish Best and two researchers, one an Alberta import, the other a local blogger who at least was tuned into the 21st Century. We have learned Best is being replaced by an expat Manitoban who is beating it back from Ottawa after surviving the Harper experience.

It appears that the common denominator is that many of the new deckhands worked for Gary Filmon's team and their experience with a winner is hoped to rub off on the Murray regime.
********************
And speaking of changeover, The Black Rod says Buh Bye to Frank Landry, the Winnipeg Sun's legislature reporter.

He's headed for Alberta, and, we hope, a different beat, because his tenure at the Legislature was distinctly less than stellar.

Day after day, his colleague Tom Brodbeck kept scooping him on important Legislature stories, and, given the rare chance to redeem himself this past session, Frank chose to imitate Perdita Felicien at the Olympics. Who can forget her spectacular wipeout in the opening seconds of her debut race?

With the starting gun still ringing in everyone's ears, Canada's favoured hurdler went crashing into the very first frame, reeled like a panhandler on Main Street into the innocent runner to her right sending her flying, and landed flat on her perdita staring up at the receding rumps of the rest of the field which had left her far, far behind.And so it was with Frank Landry.

After the first couple of weeks of the spring session of the Legislature, Frank decided it was time to write a column disparaging the Tory Opposition, pointing out how ineffective they were, slagging them for rehashing tired old issues like the Crocus Fund, and jeering that they had wasted their time on inconsequential matters like some long-forgotten loan from a Quebec financial institution to the same Crocus Fund.

Except that that that long-forgotten loan from the Quebec Solidarity Fund turned out to the be centre piece of the largest financial scandal in recent Manitoba history and may still turn out to be the tipping point for the future of the NDP government in Manitoba.

Oops. Missed it by just that much.
So long Frank, we hardly knew ye.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

MOSQUITOES 1, KATZ 0

...Let us say what everyone is thinking: Winnipeg entomologist Taz Stuart is guilty of gross incompetence and should be fired.

His value has dropped further than shares in the Crocus Fund.

And Mayor Sam Katz needs to know that his appalling judgement in backing hippie-dippy Taz unconditionally, means that he should be prepared to resign if a single Winnipeg citizen is infected with West Nile Virus.

Playing games with the lives and health of Winnipeg residents cannot be forgiven.
A simple sorry will never be enough.
Not when you knew better and could have acted at any time, but chose not to.

Why did we have to depend on the province to act decisively in the face of dangerously high levels of West Nile-infected mosquitoes when city officials were telling us there was no problem ?

The press says the mosquito debacle is due to poor communications on the part of Taz, the new boy in the job of mosquito control. That's nonsense.
Compare these two days of mosquito stories on CBC:

Wednesday
On a more positive note, Stuart said the Culex tarsalis mosquito that carries West Nile virus in Manitoba has not been found in large numbers in city traps.

Thursday
Meanwhile, the city released trap-count figures for the capital region on Thursday that shocked longtime residents. Inside the city, trap counts ranged from a low of 81 in Garden City to a high of 3,392 in Charleswood. Provincial officials say preliminary information indicates the number of Culex mosquitoes, the type that carries the West Nile virus, has increased in most communities across southern Manitoba, with Culex mosquitoes making up 20 to 40 per cent of the mosquitoes in many traps.

Has anyone demanded an answer from Taz as to why he saw no problem the day before the province screamed "Fog"?

We suspect the answer is in the embarassing inteview Taz gave on Wednesday to the CBC. He was all giggly and grinning as the reporter lobbed softballs at him, all premised (and some phrased) on the conclusion that fogging was bad and not really effective anyway.

What the reporter failed to do is put Taz's experience in mosquito fighting into context.

Because before coming Winnipeg, Taz was the bug guy in Regina, a city which has eschewed fogging. Nor did the CBC think it important to mention that in 2003, on Taz's watch, almost 250 people in Regina and district developed West Nile symptoms, many of them in the most severe range. So perhaps his bar for mosquito tolerance is set a lot lower than anyone knew.

Taz has been quite clear since the day he arrived. It's been the press that simply refused to hear what he was saying. "Read my lips. No Fogging!" How much simpler could he put it? Sure he dodged and danced and sidestepped as he said it, but the sum of every interview was the same: fogging is safe and there will be no fogging for mosquitoes.

Taz set himself up as the ultimate arbitor of when to fog. He did away with announcing mosquito counts so that the simple citizens wouldn't bother their little heads with when fogging should take place. He spun a complex formula for when fogging would be necessary, a formula that could only be understood by a graduate of the Hogwart's Academy of Mosquitology like him.

Challenged, he haughtily told the voters they could get mosquito counts once a month, if they filed a Freedom of Information request. When that went too far, he "compromised" and agreed to announce 'average' mosquito counts instead of actual counts in each trap around the city. And what did it mean in the end? Well, just that he would decide what to tell the public and he would decide when fogging was necessary using his own secret formula .

Oh and fogging was not going to be necessary.

The press went along with it, meekly accepting that the previous formula for triggering fogging was based on "arbitrary" numbers of mosquitoes in traps, as if Taz's predecessor just put some numbers in a hat and decided that 100 was the magic number.

But nowhere did any reporter think those numbers through.

When the trap count reaches 100 a night, then that's a pretty good indication, historically supported, that the mosquito population is becoming a problem. The job of the city entomologist is to keep the mosquito population under control. When the count hit 100, or 25 a night over three nights, it was a sign that mosquitoes were getting out of control. Which pretty much describes the present situation.

For mosquito counts to be over 3000 in a trap is outrageous. For the city mosquito fighting forces to have no idea of the extent of West Nile infestation is unforgiveable. Even more disturbing is that Taz has blown the mosquito fighting budget already, just when the worst outbreak of mosquitoes is starting. And he was warned a month ago that conditions were perfect the largest outbreak of West Nile virus ever seen in the province.

Winnipeg Free Press June 25, 2005
"It is calm now, but there is very high potential for it to break very suddenly and with a great deal of fury," said University of Winnipeg professor Rob Anderson.who was the provincial government's scientific advisor on West Nile in 2003 and 2004 before returning to full-time teaching.

In a typical Manitoba summer, three generations of Culex tarsalis mosquitoes are born, each much larger than the last. University of Winnipeg professor Rob Anderson believes extra heat this year could add another generation or even two.

Equally culpable in the delusion of the anything-but-fogging methods to control mosquitoes is the city's new mayor, who was no doubt spurred into reversing his tracks only city lawyers considered the implications of the rumoured class action lawsuit being bandied about by (speaking of bloodsucking insects) their learn-ed friends anxious to canvass anyone who became ill with West Nile and "sign here".

Sam Katz was in full Patton mode during last year's election campaign when he declared a "war on mosquitoes", complete with charts, a pointer and the giant " no-skeeters" logo. He backed up his tough talk by immediately ordering fogging resumed in the face of protests by a lunatic fringe.

But he was already talking about using a secret weapon.
Winnipeg - September 23, 2004 - Winnipeg's Mayor Sam Katz today welcomed new City Entomologist Taz Stuart to City Hall and outlined some ideas to develop a new approach to summer mosquito control that would avoid fogging. Katz will ask Stuart to explore the use of methoprene briquettes, a technique used in American cities such as Boston and New York City. Methoprene is administered in standing water and gradually releases a chemical that prevents the reproduction and maturity of mosquitoes. The briquettes may allow larviciding efforts to endure through extended periods of rainfall in wet summers.

You mean wet summers like this one, Sam?

Did those briquettes come with a money-back guarantee?

Time for the truth. Briquettes, dragonflies, minnows, and whatever other hippy-dippy Hogwart's magic methods have been tried are an utter, total, complete failure. Mayor Sam's three-year battle campaign has ended in a complete rout in year one. The province had to step in and send Sammy to the showers.

Perhaps the final straw was the pathetic shuck and jive routine he did for the television cameras on Wednesday.

He couldn't understand that people are fed up with mosquitoes which are out of control. The insect control branch of government has failed to do its job. The mosquito problem is not a P.R. problem Sam. It's a health problem. And if you can't understand that, you're in the wrong job.

Councillor Harry Lazarenko has been the only one to confront the failure of the city entomologist's office."He works for us. We don't work for him." he said. "I can tell you right now, Mr. Stuart is playing a very deadly game. It could mean his job." Well said, Harry.

When Taz was introduced to the city last year, some councillors tried to share the spotlight.
Councillors Donald Benham (River Heights-Fort Garry) and Harvey Smith (Daniel McIntyre) battled it out to claim him as their own.

Here's how one newspaper saw it:
Benham pointed out that its leaning away from a use of malathion came from his push last year to find alternatives when "everyone was howling" about residential fogging. Not so, says Smith. It's really he and Coun. Jenny Gerbasi (Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry) who led the way. "I was calling for larviciding as an answer to replace the idea of fogging a few years ago," Smith insisted. "Jenny and I have had a part in this more than Benham -- Benham is new.

"It was Benham, peculiarly, who uttered the most compelling comment of the launch. "I want someone with Taz Stuart's scientific background," he said, "telling councillors what the real science is."

Now with the threat of West Nile at an all-time high thanks to the disastrous policies of No-Fog Taz, let's see if they'll tie their own political futures to his. (The Black Rod will have more about Don Benham's political judgement in a coming issue.)

Thankfully, that decision has been taken out of their hands by, of all people, Tim Sale.

The Black Rod has been critical of Sale in the past. Need we mention how he botched the Hydra House investigation and still has never apologized for slandering whistleblower Jim Small in the Legislature?

But in this case - he acted properly and decisively.

Bravo Tim.

Now apologize.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

HIRST RIDES TO THE RESCUE

(written June 29, 2005)

Who can resist a love story? Not The Black Rod.

So we're all agog watching a romance rekindled right before our eyes.

There's the knight in shining armour; let's call him Nicholas, come riding to the rescue. There's the damsel in distress; let's call her Crocus, about to be sold off by the evil villain. His name is The Receiver. The Receiver doesn't that just send a chill down your spine.

And the best part of this love story is that its all true.

Nicholas Hirst, the former editor of the Winnipeg Free Press, has come to save the beautiful Crocus Fund from the clutches of the Receiver so that she can bloom again in all her labour sponsored glory.

But this has created a dilemma for the Free Press. We're sure you've noticed that the newspaper is putting out almost a story a day on the Crocus scandal, no doubt to atone for missing the biggest financial and political scandal in the province until the Auditor General called a news conference.

And day after day they trot out the magic words "red flags" to point out that they weren't the only ones who couldn't see the scandal under their noses. The government missed the red flags, eh. And so did the Manitoba Securities Commission, eh. And how about Stu Murray. Yeah, Stu Murray did too, eh.

But wethinks the Grey Lady doeth protest too much. Because The Black Rod has discovered a clue, a red flag if you please, to explain the myopia of the Winnipeg Free Press when it came to the Crocus Investment Fund.

When Tory Finance Critic John Loewen first began asking questions about Crocus in February, 2002, the Winnipeg Free Press saw the red flags all too well. But they didn't give Loewen a full page to explain his position like they did to ex-Crocus CEO Sherman Kreiner a while back. Instead, they had their reporter Martin Cash churn out an apologia.

Winnipeg Free Press
The truth about Crocus-- beyond all the bluster Fund succeeds in risky world of venture capital
Friday, February 15, 2002
By Martin Cash
Crocus Investment Fund, drawn into the public spotlight this week by Tory finance critic John Loewen, has done as well or better than most other labour-sponsored venture capital funds across the country.

The bluster, was it, Martin?

But it's not Cash's puff piece that's the "red flag" in this story. No, to understand why the Free Press dismissed - not missed - the Crocus scandal we have to return to our love story.

For it was four years ago when Nicholas gazed into the eyes of Crocus and was smitten. Like Tom Cruise on Oprah's sofa, he professed his undying love to his Katie. We don't know if he had to convert to Crocusology, the worship of all things Mondragon, but we know they began going steady and it soon turned hot and heavy.

In November, 2001, a giddy Nicholas went public with their relationship. They were going to have a Conference together. Hearts melted. Lovers cooed. A conference. Together. Can it get any better than this? Yes, it could. They even called their conference "Getting Together, 2001". Awwww.

Nicholas went between the sheets first.

Winnipeg Free Press
An effort to connect the cliques
Saturday, November 10, 2001
By Nicholas Hirst
If I remember correctly the idea for a conference on how to get the economy in Manitoba moving faster than it has moved for decades, came from Sherman Kreiner, president and chief executive officer of Crocus Investment Fund. (He may blame me.) This was sometime in the spring before the collapse of high-tech stocks, before the word 'recession' had been mentioned by any credible forecaster and way before Sept. 11. It seemed like a very good idea and one that I was pleased to commit the Free Press to join Crocus in organizing.

Then Sherman followed that Alphonse-and-Gaston routine with this...

Winnipeg Free Press
Growing together 2001 Time to embrace a can-do vision
Monday, November 12, 2001
By Sherman Kreiner
Are we a "can-do" community? Some communities seem to get things done and their pattern of success generates confidence in meeting new challenges. Soon the tangible accomplishments and the collective self-confidence create a real "can-do" attitude.

This wasn't going to be some rinky-dink regional conflab. This was to be modelled on the annual economic conference held in Davos, Switzerland. These boys were thinking big.

And Martin Cash was there to capture all the glory.

Winnipeg Free Press
Looking to the future Conference taps into community in bid to build economic vision for Manitoba
Tuesday, November 13, 2001
By Martin Cash
David Friesen, Rob Hilliard, Annitta Stenning, Emoke Szathmary and David Graves are a diverse group of Winnipeggers who individually have all achieved a high level of success in their respective fields,,,

November, 2001, Nicholas and Crocus co-host a conference. Remember this was held less than 3 months before Tory MLA John Loewen tried to ring alarm bells about Crocus and got Kreiner's threats of a paralyzing lawsuit as a response.

Do you think anyone at the Free Press was about to suggest that, maybe, somebody should look into Loewen's accusations? Can you say 'Career Ending Move'?

The editor of the Winnipeg Free Press and the CEO of Crocus were in bed together. Partners. Pals.

What do you have when you take a Visionary like Nicholas Hirst working with a Visionary like Sherman Kreiner under the watchful eye of a Visionary like then-mayor Glen Murray? (A Liberal Party kleptocracy? ed.) No, a mutual admiration society. You know, my baby and me.

Do you think this had anything to do with why the Free Press ignored the Crocus story in February, 2002, and every month thereafter? Goodness knows, it's not like The Black Rod wasn't pointing out the red flags to the Free Press week in and week out for the past six months.

Since the Auditor General's report on Crocus, the Free Press has had an aggressive approach to the fund---a passive aggressive approach, that is.

They gave Sherman Kreiner a full page to respond to the charges in the AG's report.

But they didn't bother to compare Kreiner June 19 with Kreiner June 1, the last time he was quoted in the paper. We did. For example:

Kreiner June 19 says he went to the Quebec Solidarity Fund "seeking an investment". The Philadelphia lawyer adds "both we and the Solidarity Fund believed they had made an investment." He cites a Free Press article from 2002 to prove it.

That article, by, wait for it, Martin Cash quotes Dany Laflamme, vice-president strategic development, investment at the Fonds de Solidarite .

"First, we think it is a good investment," Laflamme said in a telephone interview from his office in Montreal.

Yes, it was. For the Fond. They got 20 percent a year for two years with no risk. But its no "investment" when you're paying somebody 20 percent a year for two years for the pleasure of holding their money in a safe. Kreiner says that's too arcane for him to understand.

But the June 1 story quotes Kreiner's own letter to the Fond in which he writes "we presently face a short-term liquidity challenge" as the reason for the "investment." And the Free Press ignores the logical extension of Kreiner's defence.

If he depended on the Crocus Fund auditors, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, and their lead broker Wellington West, for guidance on how to turn a loan into an "investment' in the Crocus prospectus, then obviously the public interest demands a public inquiry which will look into the role of the auditors and the lead broker in the Crocus scandal.

Enron's auditors didn't escape scrutiny, and the public learned a lot about how they "guided" Enron's public accounts.

The Black Rod also notes that Kreiner failed to mention yet another article in the Free Press, something we call Exhibit A, where the Fund openly touted tax savings and no money down in a desperate attempt to lure investors away from other institutions. This was last November when Kreiner and Hirsts' pet project, the MTS Centre opened, and there was the ad, for all to see.

The problem is when the ad ran, according to the auditor the officers already knew the fund was facing a devaluation. It was only a matter of how much and how soon, a guaranteed loss for any one who "took advantage" of this offer.

The RCMP is examining Exhibit A and it sure would be interesting if someone who volunteered for the new board of Crocus was asked to attend "D" Division for an interview about what he knew, and when he knew it.

This weeks editorials in the Free Press bemoaning the lack of traction for the Tories on this issue, and how Gary Doer and his government are not fatally tarred in the eyes of the public, boils down to one thing. The Free Press reporting on Crocus let the public down.

Had the Free Press under Nick Hirst seen Crocus for what it was, and not for what he wanted it to be - well love is blind and so was the editorial direction of the Free Press.