Last week, Paul Kennedy, the chair of the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP, ordered the Mounties to examine their policies around making criminal investigations public.
The order came more than a year after the RCMP announced -- in the middle of an election campaign -- that they would investigate members of the Liberal party over an alleged tax-policy leak.
The announcement was rare -- usually police try to keep their investigations hidden from the subject -- and some Liberals say it cost them the campaign.
So on Thursday Kennedy called for a chair-initiated complaint asking the RCMP to look into the matter and report back to him.
Complaint could slow “this process down”
But Kennedy was not the first one to raise a flag over the announcement. In fact, Kennedy’s complaint is remarkably similar to one filed last July by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA).
BCCLA President Jason Gratl says he is “puzzled” by Kennedy’s decision to repeat the complaints process. “I’m concerned that the chair-initiated complaint could be used as a pretext for slowing this process down,” he said in an interview last week.
It took the RCMP six months to respond to the BCCLA’s request and Gratl thinks a public hearing would be quicker and more effective than asking for a second time whether the RCMP “meddled in the last election.”
Story began with suspicious trading
In November 2005, NDP finance critic Judy Wasylycia-Leis asked the RCMP to look into a flurry of suspicious financial activity on Bay Street.
The Liberal government at the time had been expected to change its tax policy on income trusts, making them less valuable on the stock market. But right before the government announced they would instead do the opposite, a big chunk of the stocks were bought up. Unless the buyers anticipated the government’s move, the purchases made no sense. That led some, including Wasylycia-Leis, to suspect they had been tipped off.
A month after Wasylycia-Leis sent her letter, then-RCMP commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli personally responded. He informed her that an investigation would commence. Wasylycia-Leis posted the response on her website and the RCMP followed up on Dec. 28 with a press release confirming the investigation.
In the wake of the sponsorship scandal and in the middle of an election, the news was a political bombshell. At the time, the Liberals had been running slightly ahead of the Conservatives in the polls. But their approval rating dropped immediately afterwards and never rebounded.
‘At least borderline...interference’
To this day, the Mounties won’t release any information about the investigation (which is their policy in ongoing cases), nor will they say how close it is to wrapping up. But the delay has at least one Liberal crying foul.
“If it was so important to make a public statement of an investigation during a political campaign, how could it be that over a year later there hasn’t been a peep -- no progress report, no exoneration, no statement of expected time of completion?” asked Vancouver-Quadra Liberal MP Stephen Owen in an interview last week. “It’s at least borderline if not direct political interference.”
Mounties defend their work
In a Jan. 9 letter to the BCCLA, Deputy Commissioner for Human Resources Barbara George defended the announcement. She explained that after Wasylycia-Leis uploaded Zaccardelli’s letter to her website, “the RCMP believed that it was incumbent upon them to clarify their position to the public.”
“Mr. Gratl,” the letter continued, “if the RCMP had refrained from releasing this information to the press, one could have equally alleged that we were refraining from doing so in an effort to influence the election campaign.”
Gratl rejects that explanation. He argues that the RCMP could simply have responded by saying, “We don’t reveal the existence of criminal investigations,” a policy he claims is consistent with past practices.
Time for a public hearing: Gratl
Gratle does not think Kennedy’s complaint is likely to elicit a different response. What’s more, it could take another six months to process. That could leave the issue unresolved with the country approaching or in the midst of another election.
Gratl wants Kennedy to call a commission hearing into the case. And he backs up his call by pointing out the words of one of Kennedy’s predecessors, Richard Goss.
“In a situation where the matter of the complaint has become the subject of public controversy,” Goss said, “the public interest may best be served by the chairman instituting a commission hearing.”
But Kennedy’s spokesman, James Lévêque, rejected Gratl’s call. “It’s pretty early in the game for that,” said Lévêque, adding that there were several more steps before Kennedy would take such action.
Investigation reflects wider problems
For Stephen Owen, the flaws in the complaint process suggest that the RCMP needs an independent body to oversee complaints. The need, he said, is becoming more apparent as the RCMP finds itself embroiled in controversy around other cases, including the Mahar Arar affair, as well as the police shootings of B.C. men Ian Bush and Kevin St. Arnaud.
“The first call for independent oversight with great powers should come from the RCMP itself,” he said. “If not, it should come from the government.”
Related Tyee Stories: