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

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Manitoba Newsmaker of the Year 2009 and year in review, our style

Party Hat? Check.
Noisemaker? Check.
Hot Date? Check.
The Black Rod's Newsmaker of the Year? Right here....

One individual cut a swath so wide and so deep in the political fabric of the province, that the title of Manitoba Newsmaker 2009 could go to nobody other than the person known only as the HYDRO WHISTLEBLOWER.

Slightly more than one year ago the whistleblower delivered a formal package of alleged misdeeds to the Ombudsman under the protection of the NDP's vaunted Public Interest Disclosure Act. The existence of this, the first use of the legislation, was revealed in mid-year and we still don't know the full extent of that disclosure, but that's not what earned the whistleblower the title of Newsmaker of the Year.

Rather, like Samson pulling apart the pillars of the temple of the Philistines, the whistleblower demolished the façade of checks and balances everyone thought was built into the structure of government in Manitoba. Nobody else had anywhere near the same impact.

One by one, the public processes we've been depending on to keep the government honest have proved to be useless and toothless, dependent on midgets cloaked in robes of power far and away too large for their tiny ethical frames.

Let's start with the law itself.

- The NDP never fails to take credit for the Public Interest Disclosure Act, proclaiming it to be the finest law of its kind in the entire country. The Act makes all the proper noises about encouraging people to come forward without fear of reprisals, of investigations done in private, of non-disclosure of the whistleblower's identity, blah blah blah. This first test of the law demonstrates that it's all bogus.

20(2) An investigation is to be conducted as informally and expeditiously as possible.

Ombudsman Irene Hamilton has had the whistleblower's disclosure in her hands for more than one full year. Has she so much as cracked open a dictionary to read the definition of "expeditiously"?

She sat on the disclosure for 3 months before handing it over to the Auditor General. We suspect she literally sat on it because nothing resembling an investigation, informal or otherwise, took place during those 3 months. Instead, after 3 months of scratching her head, Hamilton pawned it off on another of those public servants we used to trust.

21(2) If the Ombudsman believes that a disclosure made to the Ombudsman would be dealt with more appropriately by the Auditor General, the Ombudsman may refer the matter to the Auditor General to be dealt with in accordance with The Auditor General Act.

Auditor Carol Bellringer couldn't believe her luck. Here she was, a former member of the Manitoba Hydro board of directors, being asked to examine a complaint of mismanagement at Manitoba Hydro. What, you say? Bias? Nahhhh.

So Bellringer tucked the whistleblower's file into a closet and ignored it for six or seven months while her old pal at Hydro, CEO Bob Brennan, used the time to demonize the whistleblower and do his best to identify the daring ex-consultant, stopping just short of using an actual name.

Did the Ombudsman, who is responsible for enforcing the Pubic Interest Disclosure Act, step in to remind Brennan of the whistleblower's right to confidentiality? Nope.
Did the Ombudsman announce she was investigating Hydro for using insults and threats as reprisals? Nope.
Did the Ombudsman call the Auditor and ask "How's it going? Are you almost done?" since five months is not "expeditious" by anybody's clock. Nope.

The Ombudsman, who is responsible for enforcing the Act, did nothing. And the Auditor did nothing.

In fact, Bellringer said she was rolling the whistleblower's disclosure into a broader investigation of risk management by Hydro which she intended to do sometime or other and which would take, oh, about 18 months. When CBC asked why she hadn't done a thing in six or seven months to investigate the whistleblower's file, Bellringer haughtily told the reporter there was nothing in the Act governing her job that set deadlines.

She would, she implied, take as much damn time as she wanted and nobody could tell her otherwise---not even when the Finance Minister ordered a special and speedy audit into the whistleblower's allegations. Bellringer simply ignored the minister. Expected to have something ready in 3 months, Bellringer spent a month doing her usual---nothing.

That's when The Black Rod entered the scene.

- We revealed that Bellringer had been sending a representative to every single meeting of the Hydro board. She had been getting one-sided reports from Hydro about the whistleblower's complaints for months. And it was clear that she had never severed her ties to Hydro after leaving to become the Auditor General.

Bias, anyone?

Bellringer returned the whistleblower file to Irene Hamilton, who, you guessed it, is patiently waiting for someone to take the damn thing off her hands.

But, but, but….isn't the Ombudsman legally bound to enforce the Whistleblower Act?

Guess what? The answer is NO.

35 No action or proceeding may be brought against… the Ombudsman, or a person acting on behalf of or under the direction of any of them, for anything done or not done, or for any neglect,
(a) in the performance or intended performance of a duty under this Act; or
(b) in the exercise or intended exercise of a power under this Act;
unless the person was acting in bad faith.

In other words, the complaints go to her, she's supposed to investigate them expeditiously, but if she doesn't, or if she screws around instead of investigating, there's nothing anyone can do about it.

Short of proving she's getting paid off by Manitoba Hydro, that is.

The law is useless and toothless. The provisions that are supposed to guarantee confidentiality and freedom from reprisals are being broken with impunity. The person named in the legislation with the responsibility to enforce the law is instead doing everything but.

She and the Auditor, people we have been told are independent and unbiased civil servants working purely in the public interest, have failed in their jobs miserably. The Auditor intended to, ahem, investigate the whistleblower despite what every sentient being except the Finance Minister could see was a giant honking conflict-of-interest. And the Ombudsman said that was okey dokey with her.

- The unelected Premier of the province, meanwhile, has his own conflict of interest by being the former minister in charge of Hydro at the very time of the whistleblower's allegations. He was last seen signalling Hydro CEO Brennan with winks and sly comments that the fix is in, don't worry old boy, it's all under control.

The Premier, the Finance Minister, the Ombudsman, the Auditor General---each and all exposed as untrustworthy guardians of the law and the public's confidence. And we haven't even seen what's in the Hydro whistleblower's packet of papers yet.

She might just be the Newsmaker of 2010, too.
*****************

The year 2009 was a year of scandal. From beginning to end, the disgrace rolled out as if on some kind of shame assembly line. We were kept Lucy-busy with it all, and, to our own regret, something had to give; for the second year in a row it was our coverage of the War in Afghanistan.

* In January, a forensic audit of the Winnipeg officer of Indian Affairs showed how Manitoba Hydro fudged the books and overcharged the federal government $7.9 million to clean up contaminated soil on reserves, and how the Fairford reserve pocketed a $1.2 million overpayment when nobody was looking, and how INAC managers broke the rules to channel more than $400,000 to the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.

* In February, Manitobans discovered Health Minister Teresa Oswald and the senior managers of the Winnipeg Health Authority had been lying to the public for months when they claimed Brian Sinclair was partially responsible for his own death by failing to report to the Inquiry desk at the Health Sciences Centre. When the public finally learned surveillance video showed that Sinclair had spoken to someone at the desk, Teresa Oswald, Brian Postl and Brock Wright said "Oh, right."

* In March, we learned that opinions of Winnipegers gathered at so-called public meetings to gauge opinion on a new Disraeli Bridge had been flushed down the toilet and replaced with the wishes of a private lobby group that held secret meetings with city bureaucrats. The public's preference of a new bridge was tossed and the city announced it was, instead, building two new bridges that hadn't been part of the public consultations.

* June was spent uncovering the NDP's scheme in 1999 to defraud the public through false claims for reimbursement of non-existent election expenses.

* In July The Black Rod caught Sherman Kreiner, the former CEO of the defunct Crocus Fund, channelling money through his job at the University of Winnipeg to his live-in girlfriend's anti-poverty business venture.

* In September, Marxist university professors admitted to taking crimefighting advice from former Manitoba Warriors gang members, who they then tried to get on the public payroll.
***************

What a full year it was for The Black Rod.

* We scooped the city with the news that the Canadian Museum for Human Rights was $55 million over budget. Three days on, when the "professional reporters" caught up to us, the CMHR confessed they were sinking in red ink, but claimed it was only $45 million. The Taxpayer's Federation revealed months later that the museum had actually been $58 million in the hole, worse than we reported, but had madly pared away millions to get the loss as low as possible before going public.

* We had the national news agencies chasing our January story of a strange turnabout at the The Hague where the accused are usually war criminals of one sort or another.

"What's a mild-mannered Manitoban like Bruce MacFarlane doing as a possible defendant at the International Court in The Hague?" we asked.

Winnipeg lawyer turned special prosecutor, Bruce MacFarlane was conducting the trial of a journalist for contempt of court when her lawyers accused him of abuses in his investigation and wanted to put him in the dock to answer their questions. We had been following MacFarlane's new job in the foreign press and broke the story in Canada.

* We proffered the first ever title of Civic Weasel #1 to North Kildonan councillor Jeff Browaty. A guest on radio's The Great Canadian Talk Show, Browaty was asked if he would vote to give more money to Gail Asper when, guaranteed, she would approach city hall to bail out her rights museum. He danced this way and that, refusing to say yes and refusing to say no. His slippery performance earned him the title.

He went back on the show a couple of days later and said he had thought it over and done some more research and now would go on record as saying No to any museum bailout. We were on the verge of rescinding the title when we heard, only days later, that he had flip flopped again and was saying that, maybe, if the evidence was there, yadda yadda yadda, he would consider a city bailout of the Aspers' pet project. Browaty earned the title Civic Weasel #1 and he'll carry that into the next election.

* CJOB news director Vic Grant offered The Black Rod first dibs on becoming the inaugural blogger to do his morning commentaries while he was on vacation. But we couldn't come to terms, so the deal went to Policy Frog.

* The Black Rod was featured in the 2009 edition of the Langara Journalism Review in a story about the power of the blogosphere.
http://www.langara.bc.ca/creative-arts/journalism/media/pdfs/LJR-2009.pdf


And in the Uniter
http://uniter.ca/view/939/
where Shannon Sampert, politics of mass media professor at the University of Winnipeg, couldn't resist taking a run at us. Unfortunately she didn't mention the story we did on her
http://blackrod.blogspot.com/2006/04/mayor-or-moose.html.
Maybe she forgot.


We finally got around to reading Chapter 10, White Noise: The Blogosphere and Canadian Politics by Curtis Brown, in the textbook Mediating Canadian Politics by Sampert and Trimble. The references to The Black Rod are tres amusants.

Also amusants, was the effort by the Winnipeg Free Press to write The Black Rod out of their "Blogs to Watch" list. When his readers insisted we belonged, Online Editor John White said "If the blog was consistently producing interesting, relevant and verified updates it would be on the list." Maybe White should be reading our year-enders and comparing our list of exclusive and original stories with his chosen. Can you dig it, John?
***************

In 2009, The Black Rod did what it does best, report the real facts when the rest of the news media acts as a pack regurgitating a script.

- In January, The Black Rod revealed exclusively how incompetence at Seven Oaks Hospital contributed to the death of an elderly woman who was exposed to the Superbug when doctors and nurses refused to isolate an infected patient.

- In April two police officers were charged with attempted murder and fabricating evidence. We dissected the case against them and demonstrated what thin gruel it was. We showed how the charges are political, motivated purely by the NDP's intent to convict a police officer any way they can to mollify a special interest voting bloc prior to the next provincial election.

- In May we went behind the knee-jerk story reported elsewhere about the death of a five-year-old boy in a house fire on the Sandy Bay Indian Reserve. You know, the usual---blame the white man for overcrowding, for the housing shortage, for the ramshackle houses people have to live in on the reserve. We reported a story we discovered in the Central Plains Herald-Leader, Manitoba's award-winning community newspaper. That story quoted reserve administrators admitting that mismanagement by the band chief and council were responsible for the terrible housing on Sandy Bay.

"Sure they're living in deplorable conditions, but 90 per cent of those conditions are their own fault," said one reserve advisor, who proceeded to give examples which went unreported in the Winnipeg press.

- After the murder of a guest at a wedding in the North End, Justice Minister Dave Chomiak announced a new anti-gang strategy. We showed it was a cut-and-paste of all the previous gang strategies announced by the NDP in 10 years of government, which have all failed.

- When Mayor Sam Katz started whining about an infrastructure deficit, we showed that the "deficit" was non-existent and pure invention. The city is spending enough money each year on fixing infrastructure to keep up with repairs and even make up ground on replacing old streets, sewers and playgrounds. The alleged deficit is entirely made up of new projects like the Human Rights Museum, a rapid transit corridor, and bicycle lanes that have never been priorities of taxpayers and which would be voted down in a second if put to a referendum.

Since when does a wish list become a deficit?

- Crime falling? In a pig's eye. We were alone reporting that Crimestat shows violent crime is up at least 7 percent this year and the only thing pulling down the annual crime numbers is the drop in car thefts. The MSM has ignored the epidemic of muggings and the slow rise in house break-ins, carjackings, sexual assaults, and shooting incidents. Maybe next year they'll catch up.

*******************
Note to readers: We have not forgotten the many tips we received that are still on the backburner, including the Brandon bridges, the University of Winnipeg apparatchiks, inside the 311 service, and our mole reports. Thanks for your patience.

And thanks to the Liberal Party insiders for the Christmas song, Bruce Vallance for his politically correct Season's Greetings, and to Krista Erickson, the CBC's new consumer reporter.

HAPPY NEW YEAR.

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