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.

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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

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

NDP frantic -'who do you trust, him or us?'

Strike up the band and clear the floor.

The semi-annual NDP Scandal Dance has begun.

Traditionally, the Auditor General leads and the press follows. Then partners change and the government takes the press on a merry whirl.


This year, though, Auditor Jon Singleton was stood up as the press danced alone, and Labour Minister Nancy Allan barely got through a rendition of the government standard "We Listened and Learned" before stepping on the Auditor's toes.

And here's where we cut in.

We watched as Allan tried to deflect the press from Singleton's criticism of her predecessor in his report into mismanagement at the Workers Compensation Board. In his report Singleton noted that the government should have detected the problems plaguing WCB in 2001 after the agency's CEO, Pat Jacobsen, wrote an 8 page letter to then-Minister Becky Barrett.

Jacobsen outlined everything the auditor general's review found wrong with governance at Workers Comp.
Instead of looking into her concerns, especially regarding Chairman Wally Fox-Decent, Barrett sent the letter back to ---Wally Fox-Decent.
And three days later Jacobsen was fired.

Singleton wrote:
The issues were not addressed by the former Minister, but instead were referred to the former Chair to handle in conjunction with the Board. The former Minister considered this to be a personnel matter. In our opinion, this was inappropriate as several of the concerns raised dealt specifically with the former Chair.

Nancy Allan said: Hogwash.

What Becky Barrett did was "reasonable," she told CJOB."We believe the previous minister who received the letter from Pat Jacobsen did the right thing," she told CBC.

Allan rushed to say the government "will develop and introduce comprehensive legislation to protect public sector whistleblowers."

Reporters didn't notice, or were too polite to point out, that she flat out contradicted the auditor general.

And by doing so, she revealed the government's true attitude to whistleblowers.
And it doesn't involve open arms and a warm embrace.

*******************


Jacobsen got tired of butting heads with a dictatorial President who wouldn't let her do his old job. She saw the dysfunction at WCB and took her complaints to the person she thought would care and would do something.

She never thought that Barrett would betray her expectation of confidentiality by exposing her to the very person she was complaining about.

Barrett, and the NDP cabinet today, say it was a "personnel" matter, as if the CEO was just some "disgruntled employee", a term they're exceptionally fond of using when dealing with whistleblowers.

Barrett's intent can be deduced by the fact that she did nothing when WCB fired their CEO a suspiciously short time after the minister tipped them to Jacobsen's letter.


She asked no further questions about the serious matters raised in the letter. Not then, nor later after WCB went housecleaning and got rid of six other people who disagreed with the way Wally Fox-Decent was running his ship.

The purge must have seemed "reasonable" to the NDP, then and now.

Barrett was known to be labour-friendly. Wally Fox-Decent was obviously labour-friendly; wasn't he also on the board of the MFL-sponsored Crocus Investment Fund?

And the auditor's report shows how much the Manitoba Federation of Labour dominated the WCB.


Not only do they put up a third of the members of the board, but Singleton raised concerns that the MFL had influence with the NDP over the appointment of public sector board members, as well. They held almost all the expertise on the board, as public and employer reps rarely stayed around long, but labour reps were rarely replaced.

And the board let labour reps play both sides of the fence, sometimes working as advocates and other times sitting on the board as adjudicators.

It would be easy to translate that into anti-Wally = anti-labour.


*************************

Nancy Allan is hoping to take the spotlight off the government by promising new legislation. Except that the legislation isn't at fault, it's the people who are supposed to administer the laws.

The auditor criticizes another NDP minister, and he's still sitting in the Legislature."We are also aware of one other instance in which a former CEO's letter of complaint to a Minister received insufficient action on the part of the Minister," wrote the auditor general with few details.

Note the similarities. A former CEO's letter of complaint. To the minister. No action. Do you detect a pattern? Keep reading. You will.

That minister is Education Minister Peter Bjornson. The former CEO is Tom Ulrich of the Teachers Retirement Allowances Fund. He appears in the auditor's WCB review, just not by name.

Ulrich says he lost his job because, as he told a newspaper a year ago, he resisted pressure to institute a "socially responsible investment policy" that included investing pension money in risky investments through the Crocus Investment Fund.

A large chunk of that investment was the Manitoba Property Fund which is an important part of the WCB review.

Wally Fox-Decent (chairman of the board and the Crocus investment committee) and Alfred Black, (the chief investment officer of WCB, at the same time the chairman of TRAF) were anxious to get their boards to participate in the real-estate fund, which was being set up as an off-shoot of the Crocus Fund. The project was being championed by WCB financial consultant, and Crocus honcho Sherman Kreiner.

They had managed to overcome everyone's objections, except Tom Ulrich's. What a stick-in- the-mud.

In January, 2004, Ulrich discovered his contract with TRAF was not being renewed, with no reason why. In September, he wrote Education Minister Peter Bjornson. Premier Gary Doer also got a copy of his letter.

Ulrich said he believed TRAF's 2003 annual report was incomplete because his president's message had been omitted. He said he and Alfred Black clashed over Black's constant push to get involved in "socially responsible investments", by which he meant Manitoba companies to boost the provincial economy.

He wrote that TRAF was already heavily invested in Manitoba, that few good investments existed and that those TRAF had were not performing well.

"I reminded (Black) that TRAF was not an economic development fund and that risk-adjusted returns always had to be kept in mind," Ulrich said in the letter. He got no answer, although Singleton notes that part of the letter was sent to TRAF by, guesss who.

Did someone say pattern?

**********************

Nancy Allan says she's a born-again believer in whistleblower legislation. That won't help Tom Ulrich, who, it turns out, is being sued by the very people he blew the whistle on.

Allan says her new legislation will apply to the public service but arms-length organizations like WCB and TRAF will get "guidelines."A true test of whether she means what she says about welcoming whistleblowers is whether she heeds Ulrich's call for action.

One year ago when informed of the auditor general's review of WCB, he said: "The logical next step is the auditor should be looking at TRAF."

Perhaps sometime soon, we will hear Richard Cloutier ask Allan on his morning show, if she has turned over Ulrich's old letter, to the government's harshest critic the auditor-general, or if the guidelines don't apply retroactively.


*************************

Bjornson, you'll remember, is no stranger to whistleblowers. In May 2004 he was tipped off by a taxpayer that the Seven Oaks School Division appeared to be engaging in land development, something forbidden by law. Investigate? Nawww. He---wait for it---sent the letter to the Public Schools Finance Board with a request that someone draft a reply for him to sign. The reply to the taxpayer said everything was fine, there was nothing funny going on, and for more answers the taxpayer should go to the school board.

Meanwhile SOSD superintendant Brian O'Leary,a former NDP campaign manager, said he was only selling surplus land, land which wasn't needed for a new high school once the government decided it was cheaper to renovate West Kildonan Collegiate.

When the matter was eventually raised in the Legislature, Bjornson first claimed he never received any letter. Provided the letter, he changed his story to say oh, that letter, well, um, the school board was engaged in a land development and he would look into it, but it was making a profit, so Opposition members were making a stink out of nothing, Filmon bad, Doer good, you know the drill.

Barely 6 weeks later, after being battered by the opposition in Question period over
O'Learygate, a proper investigation proved
- the taxpayer had been right all along,
- the School Board was breaking the law, and
- a panicky cover-up had taken place.
And the so-called profit, was actually a loss of a few hundred thousand dollars.

Bjornson has never formally advised the Legislature that his statements about a profit were misleading. He did, however, apologize to the whistleblower, which is something Tim Sale has never done to the whistleblower he slandered in the Legislature.

What???you ask, another whistleblower ignored?

***********************


We quote ourselves from May 9, 2005:

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!

Someone say something about a pattern?
* Complaint to Minister Barrett/ Bjornson/Sale about (arms-length or publically funded) organization and inappropriate financial activities of the board of the group;
* Complaint handed directly back to the subjects of the complaint instead of sent for an independant review;
* The review, if forced on them, never found anything wrong;
* If the complainant was an employee a pink slip was issued, if it was a taxpayer a blow-off letter was sent;
* Some time later after a public outcry and opposition grilling, an audit or report is ordered to quell the noise -

Oh but that is where it backfires.

Each and every report confirmed that there was impropriety, after each and every complaint was blown off in the first place by each and every NDP cabinet Minister approached by a whistleblower.

Gary Doer should learn a lesson from the federal election. The voter is getting tired of politicians who promise the moon but never deliver.

But they do trust the auditor-general.

Instead of promises that nobody trusts, promise the full funding Jon Singleton has been asking for. Then Manitobans will know they have a government that leads by example.

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