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:

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Memo to MLA's: Car Thieves Don't Take Holidays

Manitoba's lawmakers went back to work Tuesday. They were as giddy as schoolchildren on their first day back from summer holidays.

Maybe it was because the first order of business was a new holiday for Manitoba, one less day for Legislators to work.

The Black Rod couldn't make it to the Legislature. There was a backlog of newspapers to read, and by the time we finished, we couldn't share the bonhommie under the Dome.

Monday, Sept. 24, 2007 Winnipeg Sun
"A St. Norbert widow was in shock after a car tore through a backyard fence and shed before striking the rear of her townhouse early yesterday morning...Nearly four hours after the newer model Dodge Neon tore through the shed...a young man showed up and tried to drive it away."

"...the young man claimed his "friends" had stolen and crashed his family car.""Police expected the driver would face a charge of joyriding..."

Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2007 Winnipeg Sun
Cop Nearly Run Over By Stolen Vehicle
"A police officer was nearly run over by a stolen vehicle that veered trying to avoid a stop stick late Sunday in Windsor Park."

Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2007 Winnipeg Sun
"A Winnipeg man was shaken but not hurt when a stolen pickup truck allegedly tried to mow him down after chasing and twice ramming a car in East Kildonan yesterday."

"...the truck chased a white Honda Prelude westbound on Donalda and deliberately rammed it. The truck then turned around and again hit the it was stopped on the boulevard."

Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2007 Winnipeg Free Press
Woman says driver did it intentionally

The Free Press was treating the incident as a hit-and-run, but every reader saw a replay of last March when jogger Kelly Van Camp was run down on Wellington Crescent and almost killed by car thieves and a 17-year-old girl was deliberately knocked down on a North Winnipeg street by teens in a stolen car.

While car thieves continue to terrorize Manitobans, MLA's promote a new holiday.

And you wonder why politicians are held in such low regard by citizens.

The NDP is confident that the Gary Doer's recent highly publicized delegation to Ottawa, starring Kelly Van Camp in a supporting role, with a cameo from P.C. Leader Hugh McFadyen, has put auto theft to rest as a political issue.

Doer will now deflect all questions about the car theft epidemic with reference to the delegation and he'll claim that its now in the hands of the federal government.

The NDP has done all it can, he will say. Saying anything more is just playing politics.

In this he'll have the full cooperation of the Winnipeg press, which has devoted more time, energy and space to the resignation of Annitta Stenning, an unelected, faceless City Hall functionary, than to the supposedly vital meetings the delegation had with party leaders in Ottawa.

Think about it.

We still have absolutely no idea what happened at these meetings. None of the politicians have reported back to the public. And none of the so-called journalists have even tried to elicit details.

Did Liberal second-in-command Michael Ignatieff leap to his feet and shout,"Now I see how disastrous the Liberal youth justice legislation has been. Can the people of Manitoba ever forgive us?"

Did NDP leader Jack Layton fall to his knees, clasp his hands and beg,"Why, why did we gut the legislation that would send car thieves to jail? Why did we brag that we took deterrence out of the Youth Justice Act? How could we be so blind?"

Tory leader Hugh McFadyen went to Ottawa in the role of spear carrier to Gary Doer. But he had a chance to demonstrate true leadership. He muffed it. He will never have another opportunity as good.

He could have used the trip to confront Jack Layton and his Manitoba MPs. He could have demanded they explain to Manitobans why they worked so hard to undermine legislation that would have toughen the laws against car thieves, laws they now claim to support.

McFadyen could have confronted Ignatieff and demanded a pledge from the Liberals to support changes to the Youth Justice Act.

He did neither. He decided carrying a spear was pretty cool.

Maybe Gary Doer will let him do it again some time.

McFadyen has joined Doer and the Manitoba NDP in contending that there's nothing provincial politicians can do about car theft and youth crime. They're helpless, they say, and we have to beg Ottawa to save us.

Manitoba's legislators want us to believe they're impotent.

But to claim impotence, you have to grow balls first.

Friday, September 21, 2007

O'Learygate: As Simple as One-Two-Three

O'Learygate---the scandal that keeps on giving.

A brief recap:

- The Seven Oaks School Division wanted a new high school to replace West Kildonan Collegiate.
- But the province refused to approve new schools anywhere when students could still be accomodated in existing schools.
- Undaunted, the Seven Oaks School Division launched a scheme to get a new high school.
- They found some land they could buy cheap, so they bought twice as much as they needed for a school, with a plan to build a subdivision with the extra land, and use the profits to cover the cost of the school site.
- They ran into two problems:

They lost their shirts on the subdivision, and their scheme was exposed by a taxpayer who began asking questions about the legality of a school division using tax money to become a land developer.

To disguise their humiliating financial loss, they come up with a quick explanation:
The land they bought for a school was an asset.
When they sell it, they will cover their losses and show a tidy profit.

The land, they said, would be sold for $819,810, precisely what they claim they spent on it.

That's not the appraised value.
That's not the market value.
That's the value the Seven Oaks School Division set itself.
What gives an asset like land its value? Location? Mineral Rights?

Since the Seven Oaks School Division isn't mining for gold, there's only one factor behind its valuation of the school site--use.

If the land is used for a new school the school division will be repaid what they spent on the land.

For the last five years the land has been used to raise mosquitoes in the spring and weeds all summer.

The Seven Oaks School Division says that as long as they say the land will be used for a school, they can claim the full value of the land as a school site and that value is anything they say it is.

In effect, they've given themselves an IOU--when we sell the land for a school we'll make some money so we'll claim the money now as if we've already received it.

Loss becomes profit. It's the magic of Enron economics.

And like Enron they even have fully audited financial statements to prove their point.

The only problem is that their financial statements don't explain that the loss is in real money, like the money in your pocket, or your wallet, or under your mattress, or in your savings account. Meanwhile the "profit" is in imaginary money, like an IOU, the 649 ticket in your glove compartment, or sitting in your lucky VLT.

Manitoba's Auditor General Carol Bellringer bought into this hook-line-and-sinker.

In her special audit of O'Learygate she concludes that imaginary money is just as good as real money and, using generally accepted accounting principles, the Seven Oaks School Division can claim a "net in-come" even though none of the imaginary money has acutally come in and they don't actually have a binding agreement from the province to buy the land for $819,810.

But why quibble over facts.

The big defect in their house-of-cards explanation is that the land is worth exactly $819,810 to only one buyer. The Seven Oaks School Division.

While Seven Oaks can claim, if a new school is ever approved for the site, that the land will really be sold to the province, they're only playing three-card monte with the truth.

At the request of the Seven Oaks School Division the province's Public Schools Finance Board will buy the land on behalf of the Seven Oaks School Division from the Seven Oaks School Division at a price set by the Seven Oaks School Division.

Does a bailout have a smell? If it does, it smells just like this.

O'Learygate is a simple as one-two-three.

ONE project that lost $307,000 (and counting.)
TWO sets of books to disguise the loss.
And today, we add, THREE official, audited, declarations of revenue from their Swinford Park land development.
Three-- all different and yet all equally valid.
Go figure.

In 2003, the Seven Oaks School Division declared in its June 30, 2003 financial statement that "The Division has now sold all of the building lots in Phase 1 for total proceeds of $1,840,820..."

In 2004, the Seven Oaks School Division declared in its June 30, 2004 financial statement that "The Division has agreements as at June 30, 2004 to sell 54 residential lots for $2,834,357 to two firms."

And in 2006, the Seven Oaks School Division declared that as of Jan. 31, 2006, the revenue from lot sales for the same segment of the land development totalled $1,758,594.

These weren't estimates.
These weren't ballpark figures.
They were supposedly accurate to the last dollar.
And audited. Don't forget that.

The taxpayer was supposed to believe every one of them. Except maybe for the second one.

The report into O'Learygate by Education Minister Peter Bjornson in 2005 said that the auditor for Seven Oaks Schoool Division advised the school board that the revenue figures in the 2004 financial statement were overstated by ... let's see, add here, move the decimal point, subtract this ... almost ONE MILLION DOLLARS.

That's right. The audited financial statement showing a figure down to the last dollar was off by almost ONE MILLION DOLLARS.

Bjornson said in his report that this was discovered "subsequent to the 2003/04 audited financial statements."

When? He coyly doesn't say.

The financial statements are handed over to the province at the end of October each year. Was the "mistake" discovered early in 2005, say about the time an angry taxpayer send Bjornson an email asking whether Seven Oaks School Division could legally use taxpayers' money to play land developer?

And, while we're at it, when and how was this error disclosed to the public?

These are questions you might expect the provincial Auditor General to answer.

But it seems a million dollar misstatement of revenue is not something she finds noteworthy or suspicious in the least.

How convenient for the Seven Oaks School Division and Peter Bjornson.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

O'Learygate: The Provincial Auditor's selective, misleading timeline exposed

Last time, we showed you how the architects of O'Learygate misled the public, the press and the Legislature by slipping an IOU they wrote to themselves into the books to hide a $307,000 loss on a land development they secretly backed with taxpayers' money.

In her special audit of the O'Learygate land development, Manitoba auditor general Carol Bellringer said such a deception was perfectly okay according to generally accepted accounting principles.

Also perfectly okay is how an IOU that may never be cashed can be considered an asset, while debts that will have to be paid are not considered as liabilities.

As part of the land agreement the Seven Oaks School Division signed with the City of Winnipeg the school board is obligated to pay another $265,000 once a new school is constructed on the land the SOSD bought and developed in Swinford Park. In addition, they must pay $58,000 for drainage.

That's $323,000 in future expenses that are written into the development deal signed more than five years ago.

Yet Carol Bellringer doesn't consider them part of her audit.

That's probably because the school division plans on hiding these expenses in yet a third set of books--- the cost of a new school whenever and if ever its built, which will be paid for by money from the Public Schools Finance Board.

But there are other costs which are just as concrete and just as hidden. Only this time by Auditor General Carol Bellringer.

As part of its Swinford Park land development, the Seven Oaks School Division is contracted to put in a nature pond (cost $40,000) and trees (cost $28,000). They estimated additional professional fees (engineers, lawyers, etc.) would eat up another $10,000.

But that $78,000, is not counted by Carol Bellringer when she added up the loss on the Swinford Park development. That's because she stopped counting in January, 2005 even though she says her audit was through May 2006, a date she picked out of her hat to begin with.

Although her report came out almost 18 months later, she failed to update the expenses of the development project, thereby hiding 20 percent of the loss by keeping it off the books in her report.

Why the auditor general couldn't make one phone call in 18 months to see whether some or all of the $78,000 had been spent, is unexplained.

She could have contacted The Black Rod -- and we would have told her that the only sign of a nature pond according to residents is pools of stagnant water that breed mosquitoes in the spring and summer.

But Bellringer's lack of curiousity as well as effort doesn't stop there.

* On Page 22 of her special audit into O'Learygate she writes of an unusual recommendation made to the Seven Oaks School Board.

"On July 23, 2003, after analyzing the tenders submitted by builders and individuals for the purchase of the Swinford Park lots, the Planner recommended to SOSD that all tenders be rejected. The Planner believed that if the tenders were accepted, the builders would take an unreasonably large portion of the profit. His view was that it would be more profitable to SOSD for them to complete the development."

"In interviews with SOSD Board and staff, we were told that it was at this point that they became fully committed to being the developer..."


* In June, 2005, Education Minister Peter Bjornson presented the legislature with a report into O'Learygate prepared by his department with help from the Department of Finance. Carol Bellringer must have been aware of this report.

On Page 2 of that report, in a "chronology of significant events", is this:

"November 18, 2002: final land purchase agreement -- 0.35 acres -- SOSD commits to undertake development of the land as part of the agreement."

So according to the Education Minister, the Seven Oaks School Division became developers in November, 2002.

But according to Manitoba's Auditor General, they didn't make that decision until eight months later, in July of 2003.


- Did the school board lie to Carol Bellringer?

- Did they, in hindsight after being caught red-handed misusing public funds, concoct a new chronology to explain their actions?

- Or did Carol Bellringer try to mislead the public, and the Legislature, by ignoring this evidence in her report?

She knew or, in her own terminology, "should have known" what was in the Bjornson report.

Just as she overlooked the outbreak of mass amnesia among at the trustees ( ), she overlooked the commitment by the board to become land developers at a time they are claiming they had no such intention.

O'Learygate is not over yet, not by a longshot.

Carol Bellringer's credibility as Auditor General is another story.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Auditor approves Enron math to mask O'Learygate loss

Once upon a time there was a company called Enron.

Nobody really knew what they did. Or how they made money.

But every year they would announce large profits, and their auditors would swear it was all on the up-and-up according to generally accepted accounting principles.

Fast forward to Winnipeg, 2007.

Manitoba's Auditor General Carol Bellringer released her report on a shady land development undertaken by the Seven Oaks School Division, known colloquially as O'Learygate, after Brian O'Leary, Superintendent of the Seven Oaks School Division (and, by coincidence, former NDP campaign chairman).

* In 2001, anticipating the need for a new high school, the school division bought land in the Riverbend area of West Kildonan.
* They bought twice as much as they needed for a school.
* Instead of simply selling the surplus, they decided to become land developers-- with taxpayers' money.
* They eventually sold 71 finished lots in what is known as Swinford Park--- and lost their shirts.

Bellringer acknowledged that the school division lost slightly more than $307,000 on the undertaking (page 28 of her "special audit") but that, using generally accepted accounting principles, the school division showed "net income" of $512,118 (page 29).

In the Enron debacle, a lot of people went to jail and the auditors...well, after their conviction, the venerable firm of Arthur Anderson became a footnote in history.

In Winnipeg, apparently, creative accounting gets the blessing of the province's top auditor.

How did the Seven Oaks trustees manage to turn a loss into a profit?

Start with two sets of books, one ostensibly to show the finances of the land purchase for the school site, and the other ostensibly to show the finances of the illicit land development.

Then, count one alleged asset twice, once on each set of books. Presto chango. Magic, right before your eyes.

The trick, is in the asset.

The school division says it cost exactly $819,810 to buy and develop the land for a new school in Riverbend. Because the Public Schools Finance Board will pay the legitimate costs of a new school, including land, the full $819,810 is carried as an asset on the books of the school site.

This "asset" shows up again, minus the $307,000 loss, on the books of the Swinford Park land development as "Due from the Seven Oaks School Division---Capital Fund."

Abracadabra, instant "net income", in Carol Bellringer's words.

If you think this smells fishy, then hold your nose, because it gets more rank.

Unlike Carol Bellringer, The Black Rod took a close look at this magic asset.

What gives this asset its value? Obviously the fact that someone will pay $819,810 for the land in question.

Not fair market value. But exactly $819,810.

And who is that somebody?
Are you sitting down?

To collect on its asset, the Seven Oaks School Division has to "sell" the school site---TO ITSELF.

That's right. The buyer of the school site will be the Seven Oaks School Divison, which already owns the land.

How does that work?

Seven Oaks doesn't have the money for a new school, so it has to get it from the Public Schools Finance Board. The PSFB will, it's hoped, eventually approve a new school and cough up the money to pay for it, including the cost of the land.

So Seven Oaks will essentially sell the land it already owns to itself!

The taxpayer, who has already spent $819,810 on the school site, will pay another $819,810 for the same land, bringing the total cost to $1.6 million! (And lots more, as you'll read in The Black Rod next time.)

And you thought Enron was a scandal.

Faced with the hundreds of thousands of dollars in red ink from the Swinford Park development, the Seven Oaks School Division wrote itself an IOU and put it in the books.

The IOU covered the loss and created an imaginary surplus. In Carol Bellringer's world, this counts as generally accepted accounting principles.

And how soon will this asset be cashed in?

Well, it seems there's no limit on how long a school division can carry land for a potential school.

Seven Oaks School Division has had a new elementary school in Riverbend in its five-year capital plan since 2002. Its school plan for 2008 states that it has plenty of room in existing schools for elementary school students, including those from 500 new homes in Riverbend. So does that mean the Riverbend school site expires?

Hell, no.

According to Brian O'Leary, Seven Oaks has been holding land in Amber Trails for 16 years and has no plans for a new school there, either. Perfectly normal, says Education Minister Peter Bjornson.

During debate in the Legislature on O'Learygate, Bjornson said the "normal practice" was for school divisions to buy land and hold it until it was needed.

"So the process for acquisition is one that is on speculation that new schools will be built. There are a number of school divisions that do speculate and acquire land as a result of their long-term planning, and there are many school divisions that do own property for the purpose of the construction of schools."

There you have it from the Education Minister himself.

But should we be reassured that from now on Seven Oaks School Division is now engaging in land "speculation" rather than land development?

Next: More dubious accounting in O'Learygate.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

A new police chief: Put the 'can' in candidate

What leadership skills and characteristics do you feel are important in a Chief of Police for the City of Winnipeg?

Winnipeg is looking for a new police chief and the final choice will be made by Anita Stenning, the city's Chief Administrative Officer. Part of the process is, of course, the obligatory "consultation" with the public.

The question above was the basis of a couple of public meetings this week to gauge what Joe Citizen sees as important in a chief. But Anita Stenning already knows the answer.

The people have been shouting it for months.

They want an anti-Ewatski.

Someone the direct opposite of the bumbler that's held the post for nine long years.

Someone who will make crimefighting and crime prevention his only priority.

The people don't want a politically correct hire. They know such a person will make decisions based on political correctness that serves to justify his -- or her -- hiring.

They don't want "hope".
They don't want "effort".
They want results.

They want Bill Bratton.

Bill Bratton was the Chief of Police who cleaned up New York City in the Nineties. Supported by the political clout of Mayor Rudy Guiliani, he implemented a "quality of life" policing model on an initially reluctant police force.

The two main pillars of the New York Model are the use of computerized crime stats to uncover crime clusters that can be attacked by moving police resources into the area quickly, and an emphasis on disrupting petty crimes and anti-social behaviour like panhandling, squeegee kids, graffiti, public intoxication and street prostitution which make people feel unsafe in their own neighbourhoods and which are harbingers of more serious crimes.

It worked like a charm, and by the end of the decade New York had become the safest large city in the United States.

Detractors couldn't let this happen.

Criminologists hate the idea that policing can make a difference. So they had to come up with some excuse why the Guiliani-Bratton success, wasn't.

First they claimed it was just a fluke. That crime had been falling all over the U.S. anyway and Guiliania and Bratton were claiming credit for something that would have happened without them. Demographics. Fewer young males, post baby boom, meant less crime, see.

But that didn't explain why New York went from the bottom of the scale to the top. So the latest variation on the theme is---abortion. Kill enough boy babies and crime goes down, see.

The only problem was that Bill Bratton wasn't listening.

He became Chief of Police in Los Angeles in 2002---AND DID IT AGAIN.

The stats are breathtaking:
* In the first 18 months of his hiring, the number of murders in LA dropped 20 percent.

* Between 2003 and 2005 violent crime fell 38 percent and property crime fell 17 percent.

* In the first six months of 2006, the year over year number of murders was down another 24 percent.

* Gang-related murders were down by 32 percent.

* The per capita crime rate for violent crimes remained below the 1956 level for the second year in a row.

* By year's end property crime had dropped 9%, more than triple the national decline of 2.6%.

Oh, and Los Angeles is now the second safest big city in the U.S., behind New York.

Criminologists are beyond puzzled. Was there a spike in abortions of males in L.A. 18 years ago?

In fact, Bratton was so successful in L.A. that he has been hired for another five year term.


We've said it before and we'll say it again.
Winnipeg needs a police chief with the word "can" in his vocabulary.

For far, far too long we've lived with a police service that can't. You know the drill:

Shut down the crack house in the neighbourhood.
We can't get a search warrant to get enough evidence.
The evidence is the steady steam of buyers who stop for a few seconds and exchange money for something that fits in a fist.

Seeing the police would scare off the customers.
We can't put a police officer outside a house all day.
No, not until somebody gets murdered outside the crack house. When that happens the police force can find a dozen officers to sit outside the house for days on end.

( Or unless a mayor throws a street party. Then the police chief can find 40 officers doing nothing in particular and send them to party down. )

We've hired more police officers.
Ten highly trained officers to babysit car thieves and six more to wear their shiny uniforms in schools around town. It sure beats staking out a crack house any day.

The first thing Bill Bratton told his command staff when he got hired was that their jobs depended on crime going down. He got rid of half of L.A.'s deputy chiefs who didn't get the message.

Guess what? Crime went down.

So far the only potential candidate who seems to get the message is former Winnipeg Police Chief Dave Cassels (1996-l998).

He says the right things. He promoted community policing in his short stay in Winnipeg, even though he left before we saw what he meant and how far he would go to make it work.

"Understanding the concept of 'broken windows" is central to police work." he wrote in an op-ed piece Tuesday. That's a good start and it makes him the man to beat, so far.

Anita Stenning, meanwhile, drowns the process in bureaucratic bafflegab and eyeglazing pop psychology jargon.

She's looking, she told CJOB, "for someone who is really passionate about and dedicated to the wellness of the community and of the service."

"What does that look like in a Police Chief?" she asked.

" It is about somebody who really does inspire and rally people around a goal. It's somebody who is optimistic about that future. Somebody who is strategic, that has that interpersonal savvy, that ability to bring people around when you have those multiple, legitimate, competing priorities with finite resources."

The person has to have "a leadership style that listens and legitimately responds in a strategic way to the feedback that they get."

Stenning said she's looking for someone who "responds in a strategic way with solutions, not in a reactionary way to each complaint or each lobbying effort... but is open to that feedback but you see that translated into strategic long-term solutions. So they have to be able to demonstrate that from behaviour in the past that we can measure on how they responded, that it's part of their philosophy. I'm not looking for theoretical answers."

Translated into real speech:

blah blah blah strategic blah blah blah strategic blah blah blah strategic blah blah answers.

The people have spoken.

Now the question is whether a person who can't string together a sentence that an ordinary person can understand, is capable of understanding what the people have said loud and clear.