Nfld. & Labrador

Outside investigators will be used in MHA harassment and bullying probes

Cabinet minister says she's "not comfortable" with independent investigation that Premier Dwight Ball launched over her allegations against Eddie Joyce.

'You might say they can be fired,' says Commissioner of Legislative Standards

Bruce Chaulk is Newfoundland and Labrador's Commissioner of Legislative Standards. (CBC)

Bruce Chaulk makes no bones about it — he's not an expert at investigating nasty workplace behaviour.

But a grin comes across his face as he talks about the power he wields to hire any help he needs to get to the bottom of the issues unfolding in Newfoundland and Labrador's House of Assembly.

"I'm not a harassment investigator, but I'll certainly have an experienced one to do the work," Chaulk said.

I have the ability to recommend that they can be fired.- Bruce Chaulk

Since being handed the keys to the investigation by Premier Dwight Ball last week, Chaulk said his phone has been ringing off the hook.

"People are calling me all the time saying they have the expertise."

One outside firm he mentioned by name is Rubin Thomlinson — a Toronto-based law firm that the provincial government used three years ago to review its respectful workplace and harassment policies.

​Chaulk did not say the firm has been formally hired yet, or if it would be the only one.

"I don't currently have the expertise in the office, but I will be hiring the resources I need, or engaging the resources I need in order to conduct these investigations," Chaulk told CBC News.

When it comes to punishments, Chaulk described the "very wide range of remedies" at his disposal, including a recommendation that an MHA's seat be vacated.

"You might say they can be fired," Chaulk said, the grin returning to his face. "I have the ability to recommend that they can be fired."

The ability to boot an elected member from the House of Assembly is a power not even the premier harnesses.

Gambin-Walsh seeks legal advice

Chaulk's comments come after Service NL Minister Sherry Gambin-Walsh expressed doubts about the process in place for investigating harassment and bullying complaints.

She plans to seek legal advice on a better course of action to deal with harassment complaints against former cabinet minister Eddie Joyce. 

Sherry Gambin-Walsh is the minister of Service NL, which oversees occupational health and safety regulations in Newfoundland and Labrador. (CBC)

Gambin-Walsh told CBC that to her knowledge "the process in place now has historically only dealt with financial issues, never with harassment or bullying."

She says she agreed to have Chaulk review the allegations "because it is the only process available to us, but there is absolutely no assurance that the only process available can effectively do this job."

Later in the day, she issued a release saying she had no disagreements with the premier over his choice to engage Chaulk in the investigation, but reiterated her desire to have him use external resources to do so.

Perry also unsure of commissioner

In the House of Assembly on Wednesday, the PC member for Fortune Bay-Cape La Hune, Tracey Perry, said she too wanted Ball to take a different course of action.

Perry told the legislature she had a complaint ready to file against Joyce and Kirby, but wanted it handled "completely independent of government."

During question period on Thursday, Perry repeatedly questioned the premier about the integrity of the investigations.

Tracey Perry says she does not feel comfortable filing a complaint against Eddie Joyce given the current review process. (Mark Cumby/CBC)

Ball responded by saying — as was stated in the press release announcing Chaulk would head the investigations a week ago — that the Commissioner of Legislative Standards has the ability to use outside, independent resources to conduct an investigation.

He also said Chaulk could report to the House of Assembly Management Commission, which is a non-partisan body overseeing issues in the legislature, and not directly to the premier's office.

However, Chaulk said his report will likely go to whomever filed the complaint, which in this case he expects will be the premier's office. Chaulk said the decision whether to release the report publicly will be made by the receivers of the report.

Chaulk has not received a formal complaint just yet, but expects they'll be coming across his desk soon.

Best in the country?

Ball said the system the province has in place for investigating these complaints is the "envy of the nation."

Chaulk echoed those sentiments to CBC News on Thursday afternoon.

"Surprisingly enough, Newfoundland is one of the only jurisdictions where it actually has an enforceable code of conduct," he said. "A lot of other jurisdictions have codes of conduct, but without authority to legislate or to bring things forward on it."

Dwight Ball took care to point out that the House of Assembly, including the opposition, appointed Bruce Chaulk as the Commissioner of Legislative Standards. (Mark Cumby/CBC)

Ball, along with Justice Minister Andrew Parsons pointed out that Chaulk was appointed to his position with unanimous support from all 40 MHAs.

Chaulk said he likes to complete his reports within 90 days, but since this will involve at least one outside firm, it will likely take longer.

With files from Fred Hutton