Sen. Peter Harder, the outgoing government representative in the upper house, says the Don Meredith sex scandal proved that the Senate’s ethics code needs a rewrite.
At issue is just how long it took Senate Ethics Officer (SEO) Pierre Legault to complete his review of serious allegations that rocked the Red Chamber in the last Parliament — that Meredith harassed or sexually harassed half a dozen Senate staffers and a parliamentary constable.
Legault and his predecessor, Lyse Ricard, spent almost four years probing the claims and ruled in June 2019 that Meredith had engaged in behaviour that constituted harassment. The alleged behaviour included unwanted kissing and exposing his penis, along with yelling and aggressive behaviour in the office.
“In the case of former Sen. Meredith, it was a low point,” Harder said.
“I’m proud the Senate had an appropriate mechanism to investigate but I’m not proud of the behaviour. All senators felt some degree of distaste for having to go through this.”
Harder said he had hoped the ethics officer, an independent officer of Parliament, would be able to complete the work faster.
“I think we’re all uncomfortable with the time frame,” Harder said of the four-year investigation.
Meredith resigned in 2017, just as the Senate was poised to expel him over another matter — his inappropriate sexual relationship with a teenage girl.
Two of Meredith’s victims spoke to CBC News about their experiences; we’ve agreed not to name them. They described a callous Senate administration that did little to protect them from an alleged predator.
As for financial compensation for Meredith’s victims, Harder said he’s “open to it” but it’s a decision best left to the Senate’s internal economy, budgets and administration committee.
Along with a lengthy ethics review that left victims in the lurch, the staffers said they were offered little in the way of assistance from a human resources department they said is set up to shield senators from scandal — not to protect the people who work for them.
The ethics probe on workplace harassment was started only after a former Senate Speaker, Pierre Claude Nolin, commissioned an outside investigator to review the high staff turnover in Meredith’s office. The outside auditor found irregularities in Meredith’s treatment of staff. The Senate ethics officer did not proactively pursue any probe until that outside review was complete.
“It’s very frustrating for those victims who experienced inappropriate actions,” Harder said of the delays. “I think the Senate is well seized of the need for a more expeditious process that still respects due process.”
Legault also has been investigating Conservative Sen. Victor Oh — and a trip he took to China — for more than two years. Oh did not disclose the trip as either sponsored travel or a gift, as required by the ethics rules.
SEO’s office won’t say how often he works
The slow-moving SEO has been a target of criticism in recent months.
In 2018, for example, Legault didn’t file a single inquiry report — but his office still cost taxpayers $1.2 million in expenses.
A spokesperson for the SEO has refused to say how many days Legault worked last year, saying that information is “personal” and therefore protected by the Privacy Act. Legault collects between $795 and $930 in pay for each day of work.
Independent Sen. Frances Lankin has expressed frustration with the investigation timelines.
“I am concerned,” Lankin told CBC News. “I understand there are reasons. Whether those are good reasons or not, they are what they are. I hope that the ethics committee will revamp the code.
“Is it a limitation of resources? Is it because it’s a part-time appointment? I hope the committee will resolve some of these things.”
The standing committee on ethics and conflict of interest, which is responsible for all matters relating to the ethics code, has proposed some changes to speed up the SEO process.
The committee tabled a report in the summer but it died on the order paper when the last election was called.
To address the concerns about investigation timelines, the committee is proposing to amend the code to give itself more power to ask the SEO about the status of investigations.
The SEO would be empowered to tell the committee when a senator is believed to be deliberately delaying an investigation. The committee also is proposing to develop “obligations for senators to respond promptly to requests from the SEO,” even when the Senate isn’t sitting.
The larger Senate will have to decide if the committee’s proposals go far enough in addressing the delays.
‘Justice delayed is justice denied’
Progressive Sen. Serge Joyal, the chair of the ethics committee, said the length of the Meredith inquiry was unacceptable.
“Of course it’s too long or anyone who feels aggrieved by the conduct of [former] Sen. Meredith,” Joyal said in an interview. “Justice delayed is justice denied. The people who have been aggrieved should expect that due process will take place in a reasonable period of time.
“But when you try to deconstruct those four years and try to identify at which point there was blockage or there was undue delay, you cannot put the blame on the SEO and say, ‘Oh he takes too much time, it was too lengthy.'”
He said senators themselves, along with their legal counsel, can be uncooperative, which can drag out the inquiry process.
Claims of parliamentary privilege by the internal economy committee blocked the release of an existing report on the Meredith matter that would have shortened the SEO inquiry, Joyal said.
But Joyal conceded that even the most complex criminal cases rarely drag on for more than four years.
In his most recent annual report on his activities, the ethics officer acknowledged the criticisms lobbed at his office.
“Over the past fiscal year, concerns have been expressed regarding the length of time required to complete inquiries. There is no doubt that inquiries should be conducted in as short a time as possible,” he said.
“An inquiry is a complex, impartial and objective process that is meant to balance the rights and privileges of the Senate to discipline its own members and the right of individual senators to a fair process … This office does not have the capacity to undertake multiple complex inquiries simultaneously.”
While he has been gone for more than two years, Meredith is still on the minds of some senators.
Joyal has said there’s little the Senate can do now to sanction a former member. Joyal has proposed stripping Meredith of his “honourable” title.
Under the table of titles used in Canada, senators are to be styled “honourable” for life — even after they resign or retire from the upper house.
Harder said he “absolutely” agrees with Joyal’s suggestion.