Nfld. & Labrador

Bern Coffey sued Western Health same day he was appointed top N.L. civil servant

Bern Coffey filed a lawsuit alleging "the tort of misfeasance in public office" against a provincial health authority the same day he was appointed clerk of the executive council by Premier Dwight Ball.

Clerk of the executive council quit Sunday, according to late night email from premier’s office

In this 2007 file photo, lawyer Bern Coffey is pictured at provincial court in St. John's, where he was representing a client. Coffey resigned Sunday night as clerk of the executive council for the Newfoundland and Labrador government. (Rhonda Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Bern Coffey filed a lawsuit alleging "the tort of misfeasance in public office" against a provincial health authority the same day he was appointed clerk of the executive council by Premier Dwight Ball — a job that effectively oversees the entire Newfoundland and Labrador civil service.

Coffey represents a surgeon who is accusing Western Health of breach of contract, causing damages to his professional reputation, and loss of income. Effectively, the claim alleges an abuse of power.

The surgeon is seeking an array of damages. Western Health denies the allegations.

According to court documents, Coffey filed the statement of claim on behalf of the surgeon Sept. 21, 2016.

In a press release issued that same day, the premier announced Coffey's appointment as clerk of the executive council "effective immediately."

Coffey quit top civil service job Sunday evening

Just before 9:30 p.m. Sunday, the premier's office informed reporters that it had accepted Coffey's resignation earlier that evening.

Earlier in the day, CBC News had emailed senior government officials about the Western Health lawsuit, and also asked for a list of any other court actions Coffey had pending against provincial agencies.

There was no reply to that inquiry, other than a terse late night email announcing Coffey's departure.

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball speaks on the resignation of Bern Coffey, who stepped down as clerk of the executive council on April 30. (CBC)

On Monday, Premier Dwight Ball said that Coffey was brought into the executive council job on the understanding there would be a transition period from private to public life.

But that transition would not be able to be completed within the set time line — June 30 — and so, Coffey resigned voluntarily.

"There's a reasonable transition time that normally occurs, and in this particular case this took a lot longer than we originally thought," said Ball.

The Western Health court filing is the second known lawsuit Coffey had underway against a government Crown corporation or agency while he was overseeing the same government's civil service.

The other one — first reported by the business news website — involved a wrongful dismissal case launched by a former employee of Crown-owned Nalcor Energy.

Coffey had defended outside legal work

Last week, in a statement to The Telegram, Coffey defended his continued work as a private practice lawyer.

He indicated that it had been sanctioned by the premier.

Coffey told The Telegram he had erected "Chinese walls" within government to avoid conflicts of interest.

In a statement to The Telegram last week, Premier Dwight Ball noted that "any legal services he presently provides are done within his personal time, and I am confident that Mr. Coffey will continue to work diligently on behalf of the people of this province."

Coffey resigned Sunday night.

Clerk is usually career civil servant

Coffey's appointment as clerk of the executive council last fall raised eyebrows. The job traditionally goes to a career bureaucrat, and is non-partisan.

Coffey left the civil service in 2000 after a 15-year career as a Crown prosecutor.

He has links to the governing Liberals, and was briefly a candidate for the party's leadership in 2011.

Executive council is essentially the nerve centre for the entire provincial government.

The clerk is the top official there. The job pays more than $183,000 per year, according to government budget documents.

According to its website, executive council is "responsible for the overall operations of government of Newfoundland and Labrador, decision-making, planning, formulation of policy and the general development of government of Newfoundland and Labrador and all its resources."


Rob Antle

CBC News

Rob Antle is producer for CBC's investigative unit in Newfoundland and Labrador.