Nunavut ethics chief raps MLA Schell for “intimidating” email
If MLAs approve, member faces $500 fine, reprimand
(Updated 9:30 a.m., Oct. 20)
Fred Schell, MLA for South Baffin and newly-minted Nunavut cabinet minister, should pay a $500 fine, issue apologies and receive a reprimand for contravening the Nunavut territory’s political ethics law, Norman Pickell, the Nunavut Integrity Commissioner, recommended in a report issued Oct. 18.
Pickell, who serves as Nunavut’s Integrity Commissioner, made the finding in response to four allegations filed June 7, 2011 by Janet Slaughter, the GN’s deputy minister of justice.
It’s not clear if MLAs, who must still vote on Pickell’s report, knew about the four allegations still hanging over Schell’s head this past Sept. 28, when they elected him to the Nunavut cabinet, where he now serves as Human Resources minister.
In the report, obtained by Nunatsiaq News, Pickell found that Schell, on June 23, 2009, breached the Integrity Act when he sent an email to Timoon Toonoo, a Government of Nunavut employee, “intended by Mr. Schell to seek to influence a decision to be made by Mr. Toonoo… so as to further Mr. Schell’s private interests.”
Those “private interests” are Schell’s 100-per-cent ownership of Polar Supplies Ltd., a Cape Dorset business involved in construction, demolition, transportation, quarrying and the Kingait Inn hotel.
Schell sent the email the day after the MLA attended a June 22 meeting with two employees of the Department of Community and Government Services to talk about isssues related to Polar Supplies Ltd.
“I find the tone of Mr. Schell’s email of June 23 to be intimidating. His email was not simply to provide clarification and obtain information, as Mr. Schell submits. It contains demands and threats,” Pickell’s report said.
Cheryl Constantineau, operations manager for Polar Supplies, as well as Toonoo and Matthew Price, another CGS employee, also attended.
The meeting was held to discuss the carry-over of a financial contribution from the GN to the Hamlet of Cape Dorset that was intended to pay for completion of an access road.
Polar Supplies Ltd. wanted the contract for completion of the road, but in the end didn’t get it. The hamlet, later that year, completed the job themselves.
After the June 22, 2009 meeting, Toonoo emailed Schell the next day to summarize its content.
In his reply to Toonoo, also emailed to CGS officials Shawn Maley and Roy Green, Schell urged Toonoo to make decisions favourable to the interests of Polar Supplies Ltd., Pickell found.
To support this, the integrity commissioner quoted from Schell’s email. “We intend on completing this project in the next coming months, and we are looking for your support in making sure that the Hamlet starts to treat us fairly…,” Schell said in his email.
Pickell’s report also reveals that Schell complained the hamlet had not paid an invoice for money owed to Polar Supplies for work that Polar Supplies claimed to have done the previous year.
To that end, Schell threatened the CGS officials with legal action on behalf of his company.
“Our lawyer is ready to take this to the next level, but I thought I would at least give CGS the chance to correct the error you made…,” Schell said in the imputed email.
Relations between Polar Supplies Ltd. and the Hamlet of Cape Dorset later degenerated, by the end of 2010, into a Rubik’s Cube of multi-faceted disputes and complaints, some of which involve lawsuits against the hamlet that are still before the courts.
Another Polar Supplies lawsuit targets a Cape Dorset family outfitting business, and makes certain allegations about a dog team that they own.
After filing for bankruptcy protection in 2009, Polar Supplies agreed to an arrangement with its creditors under which the company will pay them $18,958 a month between Jan. 16, 2011 and Sept. 16, 2012, with a final payment of $10,882 by Oct. 16, 2012.
On Jan. 1. 2010, Schell put Polar Supplies into a blind trust, which means that as of that date he is no longer allowed to acquire any information about his business or influence the management of the company.
Under the blind trust, Garth Wallbridge, a Yellowknife trustee, is in charge of the business while Constantineau serves as operations manager in Cape Dorset.
The blind trust was not in effect when Schell attended the June 22, 2009 meeting with CGS officials, so Pickell found that it was not improper for Schell to be there.
That’s because the Integrity Act allows regular MLAs to own and operate businesses. Cabinet ministers may not operate businesses, though they may place any business assets they own into a blind trust.
For that reason, Pickell dismissed another allegation from Slaughter that Schell contravened the Integrity Act merely be attending the meeting.
He said Schell attended to act only as a source of information, since Constantineau was not well-briefed on the access road contract issue, and that Schell had a better memory of “oral” agreements related to it.
In May of 2009, Schell told Nunatsiaq News that Constantineau was then the manager of his business in Cape Dorset.
“I do own it, but I don’t manage it anymore,” Schell said in connection with a story about a big sewage leak under the Kingait Inn that prompted the GN to order the closure of the hotel for health reasons.
Pickell also dismissed a complaint from Slaughter that alleged Schell contravened the Integrity Act by asking a question in the house about Housing Corporation contractors who do not use local hotels to house workers.
Some of Polar Supplies’ past complaints to the GN involve construction workers in Cape Dorset who stayed at accomodations rented from local homeowners, and not the Kingait Inn.
Schell, a former mayor of Cape Dorset, was elected to the legislative assembly in the fall of 2008.
The Integrity Act states any person may ask the Integrity Commissioner to review the conduct of an MLA, provided they make their complaint in writing and give reasonable grounds.
In his report, which MLAs must approve in a vote before it becomes binding on Schell, Pickell said he decided to “conduct the review in private.”
This means he won’t release affidavits and letters submitted to him in relation to Slaughter’s complaints.
Pickell said that Schell, in his response to Slaughter’s four allegations, said Slaughter was somehow connected to a woman in Cape Dorset who works part-time for the Department of Justice.
But Pickell found Slaughter had no personal interest in her complaint and had nothing to gain from it.
“She was not making the complaint in bad faith or with a feeling of ill-will or malice toward Mr. Schell,” Pickell said.
That’s because the part-time employee does not report to Slaughter, but to a person who is three levels below Slaughter in the department’s hierarchy and that Slaughter does not know the woman personally.
This prompted Pickell to say the Legislative Assembly should change the Integrity Act to require that deputy ministers and other non-elected senior officials to file the same kinds of disclosure statements that MLAs must file.
“If Ms. Slaughter had been required to file a “Disclosure Statement” similar to the one that MLAs file every year, Mr. Schell and those representing him would have been able to see that Ms. Slaughter does not have any financial interest in Polar Supplies’ competition in Cape Dorset. If that fact had been known before the complaint was made, it might have saved some time and money in this review,” Pickell said.
MLAs may vote to accept or reject Pickell’s report, but they may not change it.
In addition to the $500 fine, a reprimand in the Legislative Assembly, and a statement of apology in the assembly, Pickell recommended that Schell also:
• send a letter of apology to Timoon Toonoo, Shawn Maley and Roy Green;
• met with “his Elders” to discuss his conduct;
• read the Integrity Act manual for MLAs.
If MLAs accept the report, Schell’s right to vote and sit in the assembly would be suspended without pay until he complies with its recommendations.