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:

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Fang and Fluffy, the story of two government watchdogs

A week of cascading scandal at the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority has tossed up a rare opportunity.

Manitobans can now contrast the work of two watchdogs of the public interest--the province's auditor general and the chief provincial medical examiner.

It ain't pretty.

Last week started with Opposition leader Hugh McFadyen's call for the provincial auditor to investigate the WRHA's brown-envelope policy of accepting extra gifts from suppliers who win contracts.

As described by the WRHA, after the contractor is selected, a group of four health authority managers open an envelope which contains details of what additional goods and services the bidder is willing to throw in. They call these value-adds. Sometimes the envelope contains a cheque or a promise of a cheque (the stories aren't clear) which the WRHA can cash and spend at its discretion. More than $2 million has been collected in this fashion. Since 2007, all the cash gifts have been controlled by WRHA CEO Brian Postl.

McFadyen said he wanted to know, through the auditor, "which companies gave money, where the money went, and whether the "extras" in brown envelopes influenced who won the contract."

Two days later, a letter to the editor from Postl was published in the Winnipeg Free Press. In it he said that he, too, wanted the provincial auditor involved.

"We've asked the auditor general for her advice on how to best strengthen our approach, and we will act on any recommendations."

Later in the week he revealed he had written the auditor general on Monday, the same day, coincidentally of McFadyen's news conference. Great minds do think alike.

The very next day, auditor Carol Bellringer said she was in.

"Certainly we're interested to find out what exactly is going on with all this," Bellringer told the Winnipeg Sun. "I would have felt very uncomfortable not going in."

"As soon as something becomes a public story we do look at saying, we have a role to play in getting the clarity of information into the discussion as soon as we possibly can because we do have the ability to access everything," she told Jen Skerrit, who broke the brown-envelope for the Free Press.

"I think there are quite a lot of unanswered questions and a lot of suggestion that there's more behind this...We like to ensure that we've gone and done enough work to make sure that all the facts are on the table and there's no suggestion of anything that may or may not have happened. We'll be able to conclude whether or not it has," Bellringer told the CBC.

Hugh McFadyen told the Free Press he was pleased that the auditor general was going to be involved, adding he was happy the review would begin so quickly.

Well, Hugh, you're in luck. If its alarcrity you're after, you've come to the right place. You don't have to wait for Bellringer to complete her review of the WRHA's practices.

The Black Rod will tell you today what will be in the auditor general's report on the WRHA.

Carol Bellringer has a track record of providing favourable audits to the government, and the NDP has a track record of using the auditor as a diversionary tactic to take the heat off a series of political scandals.

The government will now announce that critics should wait for the auditor's report on the WRHA's value-added policy and that they will make no further comments until its finished. They will then declare that since the auditor general looked into it, and changes have been made, there's nothing more to be said.

They did this to deflect criticism over the Crocus Fund ponzi scheme. They called in auditor Jon Singleton to examine the oversight provided by the Economic development department. It was only months after his report was out that leaked internal memos revealed that Crocus did all its business with the government through a back-channel through the Finance Department, something Singleton was never told and which his mandate prevented him from examining.

The tactic worked so well that they used it again when the illicit land development scandal known as O'Learygate erupted. Singleton was gone by then. The NDP called in their new auditor general, none other than Carol Bellringer.

And she delivered.

Her scandalous work is documented in The Black Rod and is must reading for anyone who wants to know what her WRHA report will be like.

Friday, August 17, 2007
Auditor gives O'Learygate a makeover

Sunday, August 19, 2007
O'Learygate: Follow The Money

Sunday, September 09, 2007
Auditor approves Enron math to mask O'Learygate loss


Tuesday, September 11, 2007
O'Learygate: The Provincial Auditor's selective, misleading timeline exposed

For the uninitiated, here's an O'Learygate primer:
* In 2001, anticipating the need for a new high school, the Seven Oaks school division bought land in the Riverbend area of West Kildonan.
* They bought twice as much land as they needed for a school.
* Instead of simply selling the surplus, they became land developers-- with taxpayers' money, something forbidden by law. So they hid their plans from the Public Schools Finance Board which is supposed to approve all school spending.
* Although they were refused permission to build a school on the land they bought, 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).

How did they manage to turn a loss into a profit? By giving themselves an IOU. They claimed the land was worth what they said it was worth because they intend to build a school there, sometime, maybe, whenever. And Bellringer accepted the IOU as an asset, resulting in the ficticious "net income." Net income which wasn't realized, hasn't been realized, and may never be realized, but which was essential to justisfy the illicit land speculation scheme retroactively.

And to save the hide of Education Minister Peter Bjornson who was implicated in the cover-up of the project. The scandal became known colloquially as O'Learygate after Brian O'Leary, the superintendent of the Seven Oaks school division, and former NDP campaign chairman.

The provincial Auditor General hadn't a word of condemnation for either man in her so-called "special audit."

Pay close attention to her conclusions in O'Learygate, for they will be the same conclusions in her review of the WHRA:

Auditor Carol Bellringer said she couldn't find that anyone in government or at the school board personally profited from the land deal.

The Seven Oaks School Division made an honest mistake because of confusing policies, procedures and practices.

And, Bellringer blamed the Public Schools Finance Board`for failing to keep the Seven Oaks School Board from breaching the act that prohibits trustees from playing fast and loose with taxpayers' money, and for failing to see that the school board wasn't giving them the information they were legally required to provide.

Bellringer has no intention of investigating McFadyen's three questions: which companies gave money, where the money went, and whether the "extras" in brown envelopes influenced who won the contract.

She refused to tell Jen Skerritt what the scope of her probe was. Wonder why?

* She will conclude that since she couldn't find any cheques made out to Brian Postl or his wife, or to anyone else in the WRHA that nobody personally profitted from the value-adds.

* She will say any confusion regarding the value-add policy is due to confusing policies, procedures and especially practices. There hasn't even been a conflict of interst policy for the WHRA for two years.

* And she will blame the contractors and suppliers for tempting the WRHA with free stuff even after Brian Postl said he didn't want any more.

In O'Learygate, the ethics of misusing taxpayer dollars and then covering it up escaped her. She also spent as little time as humanly possible examining the fishy accounting of the Seven Oaks School Board's short experience as land developers.

Bellringer said that was not her job. That was the job of the Opposition which could raise those issues at the Legislature's public accounts committee.

Oh, look, she has already said she will make her WRHA mini-audit public through the very same public accounts committee.

But Carol Bellringer's announcement of her audit of the WRHA was overshadowed by another announcement by another government watchdog.

Dr. Thambirajah Balachandra, Manitoba's chief medical examiner, announced Wednesday that he was calling an inquest into the death of Brian Sinclair, the unfortunate man who died awaiting treatment at the Emergency Room of the Health Sciences Centre last September and whose body was discovered in the ER waiting area 33 hours after he arrived.

His announcement was odd. Way back in September, within days of Sinclair's death, news outlets were reporting that Balachandra had called an inquest.

He sounded angry at the time. He said he wasn't going to wait for the WRHA's internal review of the death. Canadian Press reported his saying the inquest would be convened "as soon as possible."

"They can take their sweet time," he said. "I don't care."

On Wednesday, his announcement of the inquest call came with reasons. The public thought they knew the reason---a man died waiting almost a day and a half for treatment at Winnipeg's biggest hospital. Balachandra thought they needed to know more.

He obviously thought they needed to know that the WRHA and the provincial government had been misleading them for the past four months.

Balachandra revealed that security tapes of the emergency room showed that Brian Sinclair had sought help at the triage desk of the ER, something that had been specifically denied by the WRHA---and the government--- from Day One.

Sinclair could be seen on the video speaking to an aide with a clipboard as the triage nurse spoke to another patient, according to news reports.

The four-month-long coverup came crashing down in seconds, taking with it the credibility of WHRA vice-president Brock Wright and WRHA president and CEO Brian Postl. They had claimed for month after month that Sinclair had come nowhere near the triage desk. Wright even admitted he never saw the security video, he just told the public a lie without even trying to learn the truth for himself.

Not fair, bleated Postl. We've always acknowledged we were in the wrong (except when Wright blamed Sinclair for his own death - ed.), squeaked the WHRA president. The problems were systemic, systemic, systemic. And they've been fixed, fixed, fixed. It's not fair to blame anyone specifically now, he huffed.

But a growing chorus believes its is time to blame the people who worked so hard to mislead the public. Starting with Brock Wright and Brian Postl.

And the two Human Resources managers who watched the tapes and kept silent as Wright repeated falsehood after falsehood.

And the WRHA legal team that saw the tapes and said nothing.

"The buck's got to stop somewhere," said Manitoba MLA Jon Gerrard.

And since his first revelation, Balachandra has exposed even more suppressed information. He told the Free Press that a security guard who saw Sinclair vomiting, hours after entering the waiting room, tried and failed to get the attention of ER staff.

Just another factoid Brock Wright and Brian Postl forgot to tell the public.

Balachandra didn't need to make these details public. He could have waited for the inquest. But it appears that, unlike Carol Bellringer, he believes that his job includes blowing the whistle on unethical behaviour--- like coverups.

And he will do the right thing regardless of whether his political masters like it or not.

No date has been set for the Sinclair inquest. It will be the most awaited legal proceeding of the year.

And an update for anyone wondering what happened at The Hague in the trial where Bruce Macfarlane is acting as special prosecutor...

Saturday, January 24, 2009
The Further Adventures of Bruce MacFarlane, Manitoba Special Agent 204
What's a mild-mannered Manitoban like Bruce MacFarlane doing as a possible defendant at the International Court in The Hague?

The court issued this statement last week:

February 3, 2009
Florence Hartmann Trial Commencement Postponed
The start of trial in the case of Florence Hartmann charged with contempt of court has been postponed, the Special Chamber announced today.

The trial was postponed until further notice due to the Defence motion for disqualification of two members of the special chamber and of senior legal officer in charge of the case. (That's our Bruce - ed.)

“Considering that the Motion was filed only two days prior to the scheduled commencement of trial on 5 February 2009, it is impractical to dispose of it in a definitive manner before this date,” reads the order signed by Judge Carmel Agius.

Hartmann, a one-time spokesperson for a former Tribunal Prosecutor, is charged with contempt for allegedly willfully disclosing information in knowing violation of an order of a Chamber.

A Scheduling Order providing the revised start time for the trial will be issued in due course.

MacFarlane, by the way, was cleared to continue as prosecutor.

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