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When government MLAs start blowing whistles, who rats them out? Their legislative assistants, of course!

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Jonathan Huckabay

"When in doubt, tell the truth," Mark Twain famously advised. "It will confound your enemies and astound your friends!"

Still, it was startling to read in the Calgary Herald that Dr. Raj Sherman, the former Progressive Conservative MLA turned Independent turned Alberta Liberal leadership candidate, had just like that admitted he was the one who last fall leaked emails that pointed to Alberta's top cabinet politicians as the guys responsible for the province's Emergency Room crisis. (The emails were published on this blog in December 2010.)

The emails showed Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach had promised the province's Emergency Room physicians 600 long-term care beds would be built to fix hospital overcrowding that had resulted in jammed ERs, but that the promise wasn't kept and sick Albertans may have died as a result.

Even though as Parliamentary Assistant for Health he was still a junior member of Premier Ed Stelmach's cabinet at the time, Sherman told Herald journalist Matt McClure Tuesday, "I will confess to you, I was the person who anonymously sent that email out."

If the media didn't treat this as an earth-shattering story, that was likely because pretty well everyone who follows Alberta politics either strongly suspected or actually knew that Sherman, an Emergency Room physician himself and the only doctor in the entire Tory caucus, was the source of the leak.

Nevertheless, the media's blasé response to this story may have resulted in another story that many Albertans would find considerably more astonishing being given short shrift. To wit, that the Stelmach government assigned employees to keep an eye on its own Conservative MLAs and report back to the Tory caucus whip.

Is it just me, or does this sound like something that would have happened in the Soviet Union, circa 1934 -- only without the firing squads, of course?

Here's the key passage in McClure's story: "While the source of the leak was a mystery to most, legislative assistant Jonathan Huckabay said top Tories knew because he had ratted out Sherman to the government whip." (Emphasis added.) "'I was kind of supposed to keep an eye on him,' Huckabay said. 'I said, you guys better get ready (because) here's the email he's about to send out.'"

I know that McClure will forgive me when I say I phoned Huckabay the first chance I got and offered him an opportunity to recant. After all, even after Sherman's admission, it strained credulity to hear a former legislative assistant say aloud his job was to keep an eye on the government's own MLAs, and fink them out if they stepped out of line.

This was especially startling since Huckabay has since quit that job and gone to work as Sherman's non-Tory legislative assistant -- a job in which, seeing as Sherman is now the Independent MLA for Edmonton-Meadowlark, there's no need to rat him out to anyone but himself.

Huckabay, however, minced no words. "That was my job," he told me matter of factly. "The legislative assistants don't actually work for the MLAs. They work for the government whip. … The legislative assistant should be paying attention to make sure an MLA doesn't do something stupid."

The government can't deny they knew about the emails, or who'd leaked them, Huckabay explained, "because I'd ratted Raj out to the caucus." Period. Full stop.

Well, not quite full stop: He did mention that at the time, he was also acting as the legislative assistant to five other Conservative MLAs: Carl Benito (Edmonton Mill Woods), Pearl Calahasen (Lesser Slave Lake), Dave Rodney (Calgary Lougheed), Greg Weadick (Lethbridge West) and David Xiao (Edmonton McClung). Did they ever do anything that had to be reported to Government Whip Robin Campbell, MLA for West Yellowhead? … Maybe

It wasn't having to blow the whistle on one of his MLAs that troubled Huckabay about the life of a caucus legislative assistant, he noted, however, although he recalled how "I actually had the Whip come over to my desk and ask me to show him Raj's email."

No, it was hearing well placed members of the government caucus lying about what meetings they'd been at and what they'd heard there when the whole health care crisis started to spin out of the government's control. "People lied barefacedly!"

Well, there's no more of that, by the sound of it, where Huckabay now sits!

Meanwhile, back in the Conservative caucus, he noted, there's one legislative assistant for every two Conservative MLAs. That should make the job of staying on top of things -- and MLAs -- considerably easier, one would think.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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