Nfld. & Labrador

Province's top bureaucrat suing Nalcor, outraged opposition calling it conflict of interest

The opposition says Bern Coffey, clerk of the executive council, stands to profit from protecting the Newfoundland and Labrador government by day and suing it by night.

Shouldn't be able to profit from suing N.L. government, Paul Davis says

Bern Coffey was named Clerk of the Executive Council in September, 2016 but has continued to represent clients in his law practice. (CBC)

Imagine trying to do your job — one you are paid six figures for — in a fair manner after filing a lawsuit against your boss.

According to opposition leader Paul Davis, that's the situation Newfoundland and Labrador's most senior bureaucrat now finds himself in every day.

Bern Coffey — the clerk of the executive council, and a lawyer — is representing a man who is suing the province's Crown energy corporation.

"He's been given permission by the government to sue the government, and to potentially profit from doing so," Davis said. "And yet he's paid a good price to protect and defend the government."

Paul Davis, leader of the Progessive Conservative Party, is questioning how the clerk of the province's executive council is allowed to still be a practicing lawyer. (CBC)

Coffey, who has worked in a private law practice since 2000, filed a lawsuit against Nalcor earlier this month on behalf of a geoscientist named Adel Ebrahim, who claims he was wrongfully terminated.

On top of being the clerk of the executive council, Coffey also chairs the Muskrat Falls oversight committee — a group that watches over the $11-billion hydroelectric project being constructed by Nalcor.

Prior to being named to his post on the council in September, Coffey was a vocal critic of the hydroelectric megaproject with 2041 — a group of lawyers seeking alternatives to Muskrat Falls.

He shouldn't be, on a part-time basis, working against the government- Paul Davis

Davis, a member of the PC party that championed Muskrat Falls to fruition, is now concerned Coffey stands to benefit from what he sees as a conflict of interest.

"He shouldn't be, on a part-time basis, working against the government," Davis said. "If you're successful for winning a lawsuit, you get paid for doing so."

Speaking with the Telegram, Coffey said he could not simply drop clients once he became clerk of the executive council because his clients had paid him for services he had not completed.

The Premier's Office was mum on the conflict of interest allegation Friday, but said in a statement to the Telegram that it didn't see a problem. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

While Coffey told the newspaper he has not taken on any new clients, Davis pointed to the date on the wrongful dismissal lawsuit.

"It's a new lawsuit filed this month," he said. "He may have had the client previously, but this is a new matter."

No comment from Premiers Office

The Premier's Office declined comment to CBC News on Friday, but told the Telegram there is no conflict of interest.

Davis points to his party's previous allegations of conflicts of interests surrounding Ed Martin and Stan Marshall, Nalcor bosses past and present.

While both those claims were brushed off, Davis doesn't see how Premier Dwight Ball can justify Coffey's dual role.

"If [Ball] doesn't understand how this is a conflict of interest, we've got a bigger issue."

Suit claims lost wages, wrongful termination 

In a statement of claim, Ebrahim says he moved from Calgary to St. John's in January 2014 to start a job with Nalcor.

It is alleged he was let go without just cause and without proper notice. In doing so, he claims Nalcor breached the terms of his contract.

Ebrahim said he suffered general damages and special damages, such as the loss of income and benefits, mental suffering and damage to his professional reputation.

A statement of defence has not been submitted, and the allegations have yet to be challenged in court.

With files from Carolyn Stokes and Rob Antle