New Brunswick

Premier's office had no documents on Ngola case, government lawyer said in April

A senior government lawyer told prosecutors in the Dr. Jean-Robert Ngola case in April that there were no documents relevant to the case in the office of Premier Blaine Higgs.

Higgs says letter obtained by CBC News is accurate and he got information verbally, not in documents

All charges have been withdrawn against Dr. Jean-Robert Ngola, who now practises in Quebec. He was accused of violating the Emergency Measures Act for not quarantining. (Judy Trinh/CBC News file photo)

A senior government lawyer told prosecutors in the Dr. Jean-Robert Ngola case in April that there were no documents relevant to the case in the office of Premier Blaine Higgs.

Pierre Ouellette, a lawyer with the Office of the Attorney General, said in an April 12 letter that there were "no notes, emails, texts, letters, or communications in paper, electronic or other form from the Office of the Premier of New Brunswick" relating to the Ngola case.

That seemed to contradict Higgs's statement on Tuesday that he was willing to release additional information he had about the Ngola case if the physician waived his privacy rights.

Higgs repeated the offer Wednesday morning.

"I'm willing to share every bit of information I have," the premier said during Question Period.

But he later told reporters that there was no contradiction and the April 12 letter is correct because the information he has was delivered verbally by Public Health officials in briefings to cabinet and was not written down.

"That's true. There were no documents or orders or text messages or emails or whatever from my office," he said.

Premier Blaine Higgs said the only information he has on the Ngola case is from verbal discussions with Public Health. (Government of New Brunswick)

On Tuesday, Higgs challenged Ngola to waive his right to privacy so the premier could make the information public.

Higgs said the information came from questions he posed during briefings about how a cluster of cases in Campbellton had started and what could be done better to avoid similar clusters in the future.

Nothing was written down and  no one from his office took notes, he said.

A copy of Ouellette's letter was obtained by CBC News and was also raised in the legislature by Liberal MLA Rob McKee.

Higgs refused for a second day to say what information he has. On Tuesday he said it was information "that I've never heard shared publicly."

Crown prosecutors withdrew a charge against Ngola last Friday for breaching the province's Emergency Measures Act by failing to quarantine when he returned from Quebec last year.

He was scheduled to go on trial June 14, but Michaud said Friday the defence team provided evidence last month that persuaded the Crown there was no longer a reasonable probability of conviction. He didn't say what that evidence was.

While Higgs did not name Ngola in May 2020 and spoke only of an "irresponsible medical professional" who had returned from Quebec with a case of COVID-19, the physician was quickly identified on social medial platforms after testing positive.

He was suspended from his job and blamed for a cluster of cases in the area. He also received racist threats.

Rob McKee is an Liberal MLA (Guy Leblanc/Radio-Canada file photo )

Ngola had left the province on an overnight trip to pick up his four-year-old daughter in Montreal.

Ouellette's letter on April 12 was in response to a request from Sébastien Michaud, the regional director of public prosecutions overseeing the Ngola file, for material related to the case that he had to disclose to defence lawyers.

McKee said if Higgs had information that he did not turn over, that may have compromised the legal proceedings.

"He tells us he has documents. He tells the courts he has none," McKee said.

"He's trying to retry this matter. It got dropped in the courts. He's trying to resuscitate the issue to save face in the court of public opinion. … It's completely outrageous what he's doing to a private citizen." 

Asked Wednesday if Public Health would have written briefing materials that should have been disclosed to the lawyers, Higgs said, "That wasn't the question. The question was whether I had a direct play in this in targeting an individual."

Green leader David Coon said the Ngola case has become "extremely personal for the premier and it should not be."

Green Party Leader David Coon (Joe McDonald/CBC)

But Higgs said his comments last May were driven by his desire to address any shortcomings in the province's public health measures, especially given the province's first death from COVID-19.

"I was – I don't know if upset is the right word – but I was so disturbed because we were trying so hard to not have fatalities," he said.

"I asked a lot of questions about how did we get here."

However, Higgs made the comments about an "irresponsible medical professional" on May 27 and New Brunswick announced its first death from COVID-19 eight days later, on June 4.

He did not respond directly to a question about that timeline, but said his concerns were based in part on some very elderly residents of the Campbellton area who were "very near to not surviving" the cluster of cases at the time.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jacques Poitras

Provincial Affairs reporter

Jacques Poitras has been CBC's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. Raised in Moncton, he also produces the CBC political podcast Spin Reduxit.

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