An assembly without integrity?
The squalid tale of South Baffin MLA Fred Schell’s most recent rendezvous with Norman Pickell, the Nunavut Integrity Commissioner, begins around Nov. 1, 2011.
That was when Chris Scullion, Schell’s temporary executive assistant, told Joe Kunuk, the deputy minister of human resources, that Schell, who had just become minister of human resources, was hiring a man named Michael Constantineau to work as his permanent executive assistant.
Kunuk brought this information immediately to Dan Vandermuelen, the Government of Nunavut’s boss of all bosses.
“He [Vandermuelen] believed that Mr. Schell had opened up a means by which information could flow between Mr. Schell’s business and the confidential information with which cabinet deals,” Pickell wrote.
That’s because Michael Constantineau’s wife is Cheryl Constantineau.
She manages Schell’s Cape Dorset business, Polar Supplies Ltd., inside a blind trust. The terms of the blind trust forbid her from giving any information about the business to Schell. Schell, in turn, is forbidden from receiving any information about the business or doing anything to manage the business.
“Mr. Kunuk told Mr. Vandermeulen that the hiring might raise some questions in the house,” Pickell wrote.
(Ironically, Pickell found Schell’s hiring of Michael Constantineau did not violate Schell’s blind trust. That’s because Schell and the two Constantineaus were to have signed an agreement promising not to talk to each other about Polar Supplies. And though he didn’t much like the arrangement, Pickell found no evidence that Schell or the Constantineau couple did this to circumvent the blind trust.)
Questions in the house? In a healthy legislature, yes. In a healthy legislature, such an arrangement could lead to many tough questions.
But not in the Legislative Assembly of Nunavut. The record demonstrates Schell never had anything to fear from MLAs asking “questions in the house.”
And the record shows MLAs were willing to let Schell sit for many months as a lame-duck minister without portfolio, long after they ought to have removed him. Despite the cloud of suspicion that hung above his head, they let him sit in cabinet with full access to confidential cabinet information.
In effect, they put Schell’s career interests above the public interest, eroding public confidence in the integrity of the legislature.
Just look at their record of inaction. On March 11, 2012, Premier Eva Aariak announced she had instructed Vandermuelen to contact the Integrity Commissioner to start a review of Schell’s conduct. She stripped Schell of all cabinet portfolios, saying he “acted in conflict of interest and abused his authority as minister.”
Don’t forget, in the Nunavut legislature the premier has the power to distribute cabinet portfolios only. The premier does not have the power to choose or remove cabinet ministers. Only MLAs are able to do that.
Did MLAs ever use that power? No, they didn’t.
On May 30, 2012, Rankin Inlet North MLA Tagak Curley complained in the house about Schell sitting in cabinet with no apparent work to do. But Curley and other MLAs could have resolved the problem. They could have used that sitting to pass a vote removing Schell from cabinet. But they didn’t.
At that time, MLAs, along with everyone else in Nunavut, already knew Schell had violated the Integrity Act once before. We learned about this in an Integrity Act report tabled Oct. 20, 2011, about three weeks after MLAs elected Schell to cabinet.
This means that on Sept. 28, 2011, MLAs put Schell into cabinet while he was already under review for ethics violations — which neither he nor anyone else mentioned during the cabinet selection exercise.
This, by itself, would have provided MLAs with all the justification they needed to remove Schell from cabinet during their October 2011 sitting or at later winter and spring sittings. But they didn’t.
Contrast that with what happened in March 2003, when Nunavut MLAs removed Jack Anawak from cabinet about a month after Paul Okalik, then the premier, stripped him of all portfolios following a political dispute that led Anawak to depart from cabinet solidarity.
Anawak did not breach the Integrity Act and faced no ethics allegations. But MLAs got him out of cabinet as fast they could.
We now know Fred Schell as a man who, by his own admission, lied under oath to the Integrity Commissioner, an officer of the legislative assembly. We now know he abused his power as human resources minister to pursue personal vendettas against certain Government of Nunavut employees.
Thanks to Nunavut MLAs, a self-confessed liar sat in cabinet a year longer than he should have.
In his resignation speech, Schell whimpered about the power of senior GN bureaucrats and how the “full weight of this government’s resources” was set against him.
But who else except civil servants have the capacity — and the willingness — to blow the whistle on a cabinet minister’s ethical transgressions?
Maybe Vandermuelen and other officials spent too much time preparing material for the integrity commissioner. But at least those bureaucrats eventually blew the whistle. The MLAs never did — and they had many opportunities. JB
Readers will find Integrity Commissioner Norman Pickell’s Oct. 30, 2012 report on the conduct of South Baffin MLA Fred Schell embedded below: