Nfld. & Labrador

Bern Coffey debacle damaged integrity of public service, says former top bureaucrat

A former top civil servant in Newfoundland and Labrador says the controversy involving Bern Coffey has damaged the integrity of the public service and spotlights the need for strong conflict of interest rules.

David Vardy says conflict of interest rules need updating to rid politics from system

David Vardy is a former clerk of the executive council with the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

A former top civil servant in Newfoundland and Labrador says the controversy involving Bern Coffey has further damaged the integrity of the public service and spotlights the need for stronger conflict of interest rules.

David Vardy served in a number of high-profile positions during his long career in the public service, including as clerk of the executive council from 1978 to 1985.

Vardy believes strongly in the independence, accountability and professionalism of the public service, and believes its reputation was hurt by the controversy that brought a premature end to Coffey's stint as clerk of the executive council.

It's so clearly and transparently unacceptable that it really shouldn't happen. It should have been disclosed earlier.- David Vardy, former clerk of the executive council

"This is clearly a situation where we can't have a person who is employed by government who is representing somebody else against government at the same time," Vardy told Here & Now co-host Debbie Cooper Tuesday.

"It's so clearly and transparently unacceptable that it really shouldn't happen. It should have been disclosed earlier."

Coffey refusing to comment

Coffey resigned on Sunday — less than eight months in the position — after it was revealed he was continuing to practice law, and was, in fact, representing two clients in lawsuits against Nalcor Energy and Western Health.

The prospect of this province's top civil servant suing the government he was working for had critics up in arms over a possible conflict of interest.

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

Premier Dwight Ball told reporters Monday it was taking too long for Coffey to wind down his legal practice. He said the two met over the weekend and Coffey decided to resign his public service job. 

Coffey refused comment when confronted by a CBC reporter at his Duckworth Street office on Tuesday, saying he had work to do.

Vardy said the entire affair highlights the importance of appointing senior public servants on the basis of their credentials, not on their political affiliation.

Coffey is a well-known Liberal who briefly ran for the party's leadership.

Vardy said Coffey did the right thing by resigning. He said the government should also take action.

"It's not simply a matter of saying, 'well this shouldn't have happened,' but, 'how do you prevent it from happening in the future?" he said, stressing the need for tighter conflict of interest rules.

Vardy said the encroachment of politics into the public service is worrying because it threatens the very integrity of the service.

Bernard Coffey, the now former clerk of the executive council, is seen in this file photo.

He charged that the public service is more politicized than it's been in several generations, and both the Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives should share the blame.​

'I think if a public service capitulates and refuses to provide all the real options, then he or she is doing a disservice to the public.- David Vardy

Vardy said the danger is that public servants won't say what needs to be said to their political masters.

"Public servants need to speak truth to power," Vardy said.

"I keep hearing, and it's just not under the current administration, but under recent administrations, that people have been told when they're writing documents for government to not consider all the options but only consider the options that are favoured by the government in power.

"I think if a public servant capitulates and refuses to provide all the real options, then he or she is doing a disservice to the public."

Vardy stressed that the role of the public service is to protect the public, not the politicians.

"The concern I have right now is that the senior public service is really looking at the image and how good the politicians are looking, and they see their role to prevent the ministers from looking bad. I think that's wrong," he said.

About the Author

Terry Roberts is a journalist with CBC's bureau in St. John's.

With files from Debbie Cooper