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 since 2005, adopted the symbol to knock some sense and the right questions into the heads of Legislators, pundits, and other opinion makers.

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:

Friday, January 20, 2006

Bjornson fails test, NDP still facing final exam

Education Minister Peter Bjornson was a popular man yesterday---for all the wrong reasons.

He was sought out by CJOB, the Winnipeg Sun, CTV, and Global News who were all following the prior day's story in The Black Rod where we revealed the name and story of the second whistleblower mentioned (obscurely) in the Auditor General's review of the Workers Compensation Board.

Bjornson toed the party line---bla bla did the right thing, blah blah personnel matter, bhlah bhlah nothing wrong---until Global's Mike Brown commented that some people ask if Bjornson can even recognize a whistleblower.

People can say what they want, sniffed the minister.

Well, we want to say that all the ministers in the NDP cabinet can recognize whistleblowers. They've had so much experience.

* Bernie Bellan warned them about overvaluations of shares of the Crocus Fund.

* Pat Jacobsen warned them about conflicts of interest at WCB.

* Tom Ulrich warned them about investment practices at the Teachers Retirement Allowances Fund.

* Bob Snyder warned them about illegal land development by the Seven Oaks School Division.

* Jim Small warned them about public dollars being redirected to perks and bonuses for executives and their live-in consultants rather than for client care at Hydra House.

Peter Bjornson now says they have no guidelines for dealing with whistleblowers. But it looks like they were all following the same rulebook.

* Bernie Bellan was ignored. Crocus was allowed to keep selling overvalued shares to unsuspecting investors for another two years. The NDP took great delight in the humiliation of an Opposition MLA who thought Bellan's questions had merit, but who was intimidated into silence.

* Pat Jacobsen was betrayed to the people she was complaining about. She was fired and the NDP says even now that they would do it again under the circumstances.

* Tom Ulrich (the second whistleblower in the Auditor's report) was dismissed with a form letter.

* Bob Snyder was blown off by a letter prepared by the School Board officials who were, indeed, involved in an illegal land development. He was told everything was being handled properly and he should take his concerns directly to them and stop bothering the minister. The superintendant of the school division, former NDP campaign manager Brian O'Leary, would handle his concerns about O'Leary's own project.

* Jim Small was sloughed off as just a "disgruntled employee". The minister so limited the scope of an investigation into Small's allegations that he could report no wrongdoing, and still profess surprise when a subsequent investigation confirmed everything Small said.

In the years since Hydra House, Ministers have become more efficient. They now skip pretending to be surprised, and move right into damage control.

Auditor Jon Singleton had barely finished formally releasing his WCB review when Finance Minister Greg Selinger announced he was preparing whistleblower legislation. And other ministers were trotted out for the cameras to express relief that henceforth they would have 'guidelines' on what to do if confronted by a whistleblower.

It's all a charade, as anyone reading past the headlines can see in a second.

- The legislation doesn't address how the government can appoint directors and board members to arms-length organizations like Crocus, WCB and TRAF and yet accept no responsiblity for what they do.

The boards of WCB and TRAF were powerless to censure or overrule Chairs that they could not replace or remove.

- It doesn't address how government appointed "representatives" don't report back to government about problems within the organization because, the government says, they are only responsible to the shareholders, but they never speak to or meet with shareholders.

However they expect the shareholders to pay for their lawyers if they are sued.

- It doesn't address how the NDP can wrap every single complaint from within organizations as an internal "personnel" matter. Tom Ulrich wrote a 17 page letter and not a word was about a personnel issue, but rather it was all about a government appointee, Alfred Black and his management and investment practices, which Ulrich rightfully questioned.

- And the legislation will do nothing to stop government henchmen from scaring off whistleblowers by threatening or launching lawsuits that intimidate them into silence.

* Officials of the MFL-sponsored Crocus Fund threatened to tie Bernie Bellan up in court for years and to bleed his business dry if he didn't shut up.

* Tom Ulrich was sued by the government-appointed CEO of TRAF after writing his letter to Education Minister Bjornson. The lawsuit accuses him of defamation and breach of confidentiality. He's still fighting the lawsuit.

* Jim Small had his reputation attacked in the Legislature where he couldn't defend himself from Tim Sale's scorn for daring to embarass his department.

Who will risk the financial pressure or not have second thoughts when looking at years of lawyer's bills ahead? The lessons to be learned from the enduring unemployment of those who followed Jacobsen out the door at WCB, and from Ulrich being shunned by the very teachers he represented for years, is not hard to fathom. This is a small town, sit down you're rocking the boat.

What whistleblower can't be accused of defamation and breach of confidentiality? Is the whistleblower legislation going to indemnify people against lawsuits? Is black white?

The NDP's committment to whistleblowers has been tested five times that we know of. And five times they've failed.

No wonder the education minister is against mandatory testing.

Tom Ulrich said relying on a criminal investigation is again, a case of the government trying to limit a search for the truth about what their appointees and the MFL were doing with other people's pension and investment monies.

Only a judicial inquiry can examine the interlocking relationships between government appointed officials and their allies at the Crocus Fund, WCB, TRAF, and even into the Manitoba credit unions.

They promoted and sold Crocus shares and poured millions into "socially responsible investments" that served an agenda contrary to the best interests of union members saving for their retirement, injured workers and their employers, retired teachers, and their own credit union members.

An inquiry might discover the fingerprints of the NDP's chief backroom strategist, Eugene Kostyra on some of these deals and appointments.

We already know that Kostyra was chairman of the Assiniboine Credit Union when they dived into the True North Centre, with Crocus and WCB soon to follow. Is this why the NDP is avoiding a judicial inquiry like a case of avain flu?

Given what has happened to whistleblowers thus far, and with the scandal closing in on Premier Gary Doer, only the protection of a court will convince whistleblowers and insiders that it is safe to talk.

The next test for the government will come when the Securities Commission holds its long-delayed hearings into the Crocus Fund.

If the commission finds that Crocus duped Manitobans into buying overvalued shares even as the government ignored Bernie Bellan's cries to investigate, then an omnibus inquiry like the one proposed by retired Tory MLA Jim Downey won't seem so far-fetched.

Has there ever been a socially-conscious tar and feathering?

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