A lousy memory might be a bad sign if you can’t remember what you went downstairs to fetch, or where you left your glasses, but sometimes in politics it can be a blessing.
Consider the report of Marguerite Trussler, Q.C., the Alberta Legislature’s ethics commissioner, into complaints about how Education Minister Adriana LaGrange went about contracting a Red Deer company to manufacture schoolkids’ COVID masks for the for the 2020-2021 school year.
To briefly summarize, a letter received by the commissioner back in January alleged the minister broke the Conflicts of Interest Act by ensuring the substantial contact went to a generous donor to her campaign and to the United Conservative Party.
After an investigation in which 16 people were interviewed under oath, the ethics commissioner found she could not reach that conclusion, thereby clearing LaGrange of the conflict accusation.
Without dwelling on a case that has now concluded without a finding of wrongdoing — indeed, without finding anything, by the sound of it — it is worth noting that the concluding paragraphs of the report raised eyebrows yesterday in political circles throughout Alberta.
“Unfortunately,” Trussler wrote on page 26 of her 27 page report, “given the memories of the deputy minister, the minister and (the minister’s chief of staff), it is not possible to say (what happened). It does not mean that they are not credible witnesses, but only that their memories are not reliable.”
“For the minister to have breached the Act, I would have to find on a balance of probabilities that she directed the purchase…She denied doing so.
“I would have to draw an inference from the rest of the evidence that she did,” Trussler continued on the report’s final page. “There is insufficient evidence from which to draw such an inference.
“In conclusion, there are unanswered questions about the procurement of masks…There is no doubt that the minister’s office had some involvement with that process. As a result of the lack of memory of several key people, even though there are grounds for suspicion, it is not possible to find, on a balance of probabilities, that Minister LaGrange interfered with the process…”
Remembering the lousy memory of B.C.’s Broadway Bob
Those of you who aspire to a political career, however, need to remember that not every case of unreliable political memory may have as happy an outcome.
In the 1980s, one Robert McClelland, Calgary-born former journalist who held several senior cabinet posts in the British Columbia Social Credit government of premier Bill Bennett, experienced problems with his memory, too, which proved less helpful in the event.
The MLA for the Lower Mainland community of Langley came to be known in 1982 as “Broadway Bob” after an official junket as minister of energy, mines and petroleum resources to New York City. During the visit, B.C. taxpayers had to pony up for his tickets to a risqué Broadway musical and the cost of keeping a limo on standby for 10 hours idling outside the famous Plaza Hotel at Fifth Avenue and Central Park South.
McClelland’s memory difficulties, however, began on the night of Feb. 26, 1985, when he may have been celebrating his transfer from the labour portfolio, always a challenge on the West Coast in those days, to the more congenial environs of the ministry of industry and small business.
At any rate, that evening he phoned a Victoria escort agency known as Top Hat Productions and used his credit card to pay a $130 bill for something. This became a problem when it turned out the Victoria Police had been keeping an eye on the business and charged its owner with 19 prostitution-related offences.
With premier Bennett on the way out, and the rather more traditional Bill Vander Zalm about to replace him, this had the potential to become a serious problem for Broadway Bob.
McClelland did not remain in cabinet after Vander Zalm became premier in August 1986. Nor did he seek re-election in the election that fall, retiring from politics instead to serve diligently for many years on corporate boards until his death in 2015.
However, the embarrassment of his role in the Top Hat affair lingered after his hasty departure from politics.
Called by the defence to testify in the trial of Top Hat’s proprietress in 1987, he had to explain to the court why he had no memory of what happened that night. Minister McClellan was forced to fall back on the traditional I’m sorry, m’Lud, I was too drunk to recall defence.
The lesson, journalist Daniel Bitoni suggested in The Globe and Mail in 2013, is “do cash-only transactions.”
David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He was a very junior PR flack in the B.C. Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources when Broadway Bob was the minister.