Manitoba civil servant loses title after premier learns he travelled to Las Vegas to referee UFC match
Jerin Valel was removed from role as assistant deputy minister this week
A senior Manitoba civil servant was stripped of his assistant deputy minister title after Premier Brian Pallister learned he travelled to Las Vegas to referee a UFC match, but the government refuses to say whether the employee had been granted permission for the travel.
Jerin Valel was hired as the interim assistant deputy minister of transformation as of early March, but was moved back down to his director position this week after the premier learned of Valel's travel for his side gig.
Valel has been refereeing at UFC matches around the world since 2012, and was the referee for multiple matches in Las Vegas before and after a travel ban was issued by Pallister on Feb. 1.
Most recently, he was a referee at UFC 260 on March 27, which was broadcast to millions of people across the world on pay-per-view.
Blake Robert, the premier's director of media relations, said every time Valel travelled, all public health protocols were followed — but his travel to the United States "should not have continued after the directive regarding non-essential travel for government of Manitoba employees was issued."
"The travel occurred within the recognized public health protocols of a professional sports bubble and did meet cross-border public health rules," said Robert in a prepared statement.
But, Robert said "it was contrary to the intent of the province's travel directive."
Robert refused to answer whether Valel got permission to travel from human resources, a supervisor or other higher-ups, only stating that the premier "was not aware of the travel."
The premier issued the ban to Manitoba government employees in a February 2021 directive, citing the rising number of COVID-19 variants of concern and after multiple politicians across the country faced scrutiny for travelling during the holidays.
The directive stated specifically that all order-in-council appointees — which includes directors, deputy ministers, assistant deputy ministers and political staff — will be terminated if they travel "for leisure purposes" outside of the permitted travel areas.
Valel declined to comment on this story.
Valel was hired in February 2020 as director of technology transformation for the priorities and planning secretariat.
WATCH | Jerin Valel refereeing a fight between UFC fighters Marc-Andre Barriault and Abu Azaitar in Las Vegas:
Internal government documents show Valel was promoted to acting assistant deputy minister of transformation for the Families Department in early March for a six-month term.
Robert said Valel will be moving back to his previous position as an "appropriate action" after some staff learned of his recent travel. Valel also agreed that he will not travel out of province until the travel directive is lifted, Robert said.
Labour lawyer questions language of directive
Shannon Carson, a partner at Myers LLP who specializes in labour law, says the language of the directive is ambiguous and doesn't define leisure travel.
"Employees shouldn't be having to guess at what a rule means in order to know what they are allowed or not allowed to do," she said.
Manitobans are legally allowed to travel outside the province, but the government has strongly advised against it. Carson questioned why Manitoba government employees are held to a different standard than the rest of the province.
WATCH | Jerin Valel refereeing a women's UFC match in Ottawa in 2016:
"I view this as more of a political directive than it is a sort of workplace safety and health directive," Carson said.
Robert refused to answer if the government would consider clarifying their directive and adding in that travel cannot include business travel for non-government related reasons.
Current public orders mandate 14 days of self-isolation is required for people returning or coming to Manitoba from all jurisdictions.
Anyone arriving by air from the United States has to get tested and quarantine in a reserved hotel to await test results, at their own cost.
Top civil servant travelled to Ottawa in December
The UFC resumed matches in May of 2020 after briefly shutting down due to the coronavirus pandemic. All participants adhere to a strict sports bubble, similar to the NHL.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) organizes, promotes and hosts mixed martial arts events.
The premier made the travel ban directive after it was discovered several political staff, board members and one backbench Tory MLA traveled outside of the province during Christmas time.
This included David McLaughlin, clerk of the executive council and the province's top civil servant, who was in Ottawa for two weeks in December.
The longtime adviser to the premier faced no consequences for the travel.
The chair of the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority stepped down from his position after it was discovered that he was in Arizona during the holidays.
With files from Caroline Barghout, Vera-Lynn Kubinec