Nfld. & Labrador·CBC Investigates

Facebook chats reveal clandestine planning between Steve Kent, 2 Mount Pearl councillors

Facebook Messenger conversations show that Andrea Power and Andrew Ledwell — while serving on Mount Pearl city council — were corresponding with top bureaucrat Steve Kent while he was on leave during a harassment investigation.

Andrea Power and Andrew Ledwell corresponded with Kent via Facebook Messenger during probe

Steve Kent arrives at a press conference in 2017 to formally announce he was accepting the top civil servant job for Mount Pearl city council. Kent was placed on leave in late 2019 and departed the position in 2020. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

Mount Pearl city councillor Andrew Ledwell had bad news for Steve Kent.

Another councillor, Bill Antle, had declared a conflict of interest and recused himself from any role related to a harassment investigation involving Kent, the city's top bureaucrat. 

"I'm so pissed with Bill tonight," Ledwell wrote on Facebook Messenger in December 2019.

"Call him on it," Kent replied. "Don't let him away with it. And never forget."

The development appeared to be problematic in ongoing efforts to help Kent.

"We need to sit down and circle the wagons when you get back," Ledwell continued. "Like Andrea said, we might need a new plan. And yes, we will get through this."

Kent messaged back: "The new plan will be an aggressive one. When I come back after Christmas, my foot will be on the gas."

Ledwell agreed. "We do need to be aggressive," he wrote back.

Kent wrote this in a Facebook Messenger group chat with Mount Pearl city councillors Andrew Ledwell and Andrea Power in December 2019. At the time, Kent was on leave from his job. (CBC)

That conversation was part of a Facebook Messenger group chat between Kent, Ledwell and Andrea Power, another Mount Pearl councillor.

CBC News has obtained a partially redacted version of Kent's personal Facebook Messenger chats — one group chat between all three of them, and individual chats between Ledwell and Kent, and Power and Kent.

The messages show that Power and Ledwell — while serving on council — were corresponding with Kent while he was on leave pending the results of a city-ordered HR probe.

When contacted by CBC News, Power declined comment, citing pending legal action against the city.

Ledwell did not respond to several email and phone messages this week.

Kent wouldn't do an interview. But in an emailed statement, he continued to say that the city violated his personal privacy by monitoring his private Facebook messages for months during a period when he wasn't working at city hall. 

"I am very disappointed that my personal communication was stolen, and then taken out of context, and used against me and others," Kent wrote.

During the time frame the Facebook messages were sent, Kent was on leave over allegations of harassment.

Workers at city hall told CBC News in October 2019 that morale there was poor, and employees were experiencing mental health issues linked to Kent's alleged improper conduct.

Among the allegations: he had mocked subordinates in front of other staff, berated workers verbally, and made comments about job security that they had perceived to be intimidating.

Kent has denied the allegations.

Last June, Kent resigned before council's scheduled vote on whether to fire him.

The Facebook Messenger chats were central to those events as they unfolded.

At the time, the city issued a press release referencing Kent's Facebook Messenger account, and saying, "There was continuous communication by Steve Kent related to the harassment investigation and other city-related issues that would be considered inappropriate behaviour of someone currently under investigation."

Mount Pearl officials said last June that 'there was continuous communication by Steve Kent related to the harassment investigation and other city-related issues that would be considered inappropriate behaviour of someone currently under investigation.' (CBC)

Days later, Power and Ledwell were dismissed from council over allegations they had a conflict of interest they failed to declare in the Kent harassment probe. 

Ledwell and Power have denied wrongdoing, and launched legal actions seeking reinstatement. Those court proceedings remain ongoing. A hearing is scheduled for June.

Kent, meanwhile, is suing the city for constructive dismissal — in essence, conduct that forced him to quit — and breach of privacy. Mount Pearl has filed a countersuit. Those matters also remain before the courts.

Last summer, the city said it had access to the online conversations because Kent left a city-owned iPad unlocked and his Facebook account logged in so that the full messages popped up on screen and were available without any need for a password. 

Excerpts of what was said — publicly disclosed here, for the first time — shed new light on what was happening behind the scenes, during months of turmoil at Mount Pearl city hall leading up to three dramatic departures.

'Show that the place was a shitshow when we arrived'

Kent was placed on leave in early October 2019. At the time, he tweeted that it was "in order to deal with a personal matter."

Weeks later, CBC News revealed that Mount Pearl council had called in an out-of-province labour lawyer to probe Kent's workplace interactions with city staff.

In early November 2019, Power had an interview scheduled with investigator Lisa Gallivan.

Power messaged Kent asking for his input.

"You can send me whatever you think will be helpful," she wrote. "Better to have it and not need it than want it and not have it." The message ended with a smiley-face emoji.

Shortly after midnight, Kent began firing off a burst of messages in reply. Among them:

  • "Steve's performance has been exemplary. Not a single person has ever raised a concern."
  • "Show that the place was a shitshow when we arrived."
  • "Expose" a city manager and union leader, and the mayor.

The back-and-forth resumed just past 6 a.m., and continued right up until Power was about to meet with the investigator more than an hour later.

Kent added:

  • "When a new leader goes into a toxic workplace and starts to drive change to fix it, it's almost inevitable that there will be pushback and even formal complaints."
  • "I have heard the majority of my colleagues independently say, 'Steve only did what we asked him to do.' And he consulted us and kept us informed at every step of the way."
  • "I've never witnessed him bully anybody. I've never witnessed him harass anybody. It's not who he is."

With the meeting about to begin, Power asked Kent to stop messaging "just in case she sees the notifications," adding an emoji of a finger in front of sealed lips.

Power advised Kent in November 2019 to stop messaging her with suggestions about what to say to an investigator probing Kent's workplace conduct 'just in case she sees the notifications.' Power sent Kent this emoji of a finger in front of sealed lips, shortly before the meeting with the investigator was about to begin. (CBC)

Details of in-camera council meeting shared

Power and Ledwell also shared details from an in-camera council meeting with Kent.

The Facebook Messenger chats made it clear that the three of them did not view Mayor Dave Aker or Deputy Mayor Jim Locke as supporters of Kent.

Under provincial law, a two-thirds vote of council is required to dismiss municipal managers.

In a group chat on Dec. 3, 2019, Ledwell summarized the deputy mayor's comments to a private council meeting. 

"Jim's speech was twofold," Ledwell wrote. "One, he talked about the appealability of the report, and whether or not friends of yours on Council were in a position of conflict when it came to the final vote...

"And secondly, he went back to my motion that we passed a couple of Sundays ago about the legal opinion and recommendation. But things haven't changed there. He says he just wanted to put that stuff out there for Council consideration."

Power and Ledwell then agreed with Kent when Kent wrote that Locke would vote to end his career without seeing a report, and was questioning the integrity of the two councillors.

Power and Ledwell were stripped of their seats in June, due to alleged conflict of interest in the Kent investigation. (City of Mount Pearl)

Less than a week later, there was a discussion about the potential removal of someone Kent described as "your hired gun lawyer" — an apparent reference to counsel hired by the city.

"Not done with her yet," Kent messaged in the group chat.

Power replied: "I still need to have a serious discussion about that. I want to get her thrown out and I think the only way is through municipal affairs."

Kent wrote back: "Maybe it is."

At one point in February 2020, after Kent suggested the duo ask for legal correspondence related to the investigation, Power made a statement about the situation they were in.

"I'm struggling with what I can ask and what I can't," Power messaged.

"The problem is we aren't being told the entire story. And if we ask questions, certain people will wonder why we know said information. I'm have [sic] a difficult time keeping it all straight to be honest."

Ledwell shared city's legal opinion with Kent

Kent regularly shared legal documents with Power and Ledwell via Facebook Messenger — generally correspondence sent by the city's lawyer or the outside investigator to his counsel, or letters and drafts prepared by his lawyer in return.

But one occasion stands out — when a legal document went the other way.

Late on the evening of April 28, 2020, as the simmering situation was coming to a boil, Ledwell messaged Kent a file titled "Opinion Letter re Risks and Responsibilities."

It was a 17-page letter from an outside lawyer hired by Mount Pearl, and sent to top city officials. 

The letter was marked solicitor-client privileged, and contained legal advice for Mount Pearl related to the harassment investigation involving Kent. All of the legal advice was redacted in the documents obtained by CBC News.

Shortly after Ledwell sent Kent that document through Facebook Messenger, the duo had three video chats — the first two under 10 minutes each, the third lasting more than an hour.

A few days later, Kent sent Ledwell a message saying "the BS legal opinion is assuming I am guilty and does not consider at all the perspective that I may not be."

Mount Pearl city hall has been grappling with controversy since the fall of 2019, when Kent was initially placed on paid leave. (Rob Antle/CBC)

Kent continued: "The document is clearly intended to intimidate any Council members who are interested in understanding my side of the story and creating an opportunity to put them in a conflict situation so they can' t participate in any final vote."

Ledwell messaged back in agreement.

"Absolutely," he wrote. "The push is clearly on to scare us. It's one-sided and biased. I'm going to talk to the friendlies this weekend. I'll be ready for Tuesday if that's when it goes down."

Kent thanked him, called the mayor a "coward," and told Ledwell he may send along some talking points.

'Is Facebook Messenger Atipp-able?'

The Facebook Messenger conversations could soon become part of the public record in court, as Ledwell and Power fight to get reinstated to council. 

The city has taken the position that the messages should be disclosed as part of that litigation.

At a hearing last week, a judge advised lawyers for all sides to contact Kent and his attorney, to see if he had any objections.

However, under a separate process, the city recently released a partially redacted version of the Facebook Messenger conversations through access-to-information laws. There were more than 200 pages of messages.

Those records were forwarded anonymously to CBC News.

In a statement, the city said it complied with ATIPPA legislation in releasing information to the individual who requested it.

That type of disclosure is not something the trio foresaw happening.

Power asked in a group chat whether Facebook Messenger posts were subject to access-to-information laws. Kent said no, and Power replied with a thumb’s-up emoji. (CBC)

"Quick question," Power asked in a December 2019 message to their group chat.

"Is Facebook Messenger Atipp-able?"

"No," replied Kent, a former provincial cabinet minister and deputy premier who oversaw a revamping of that transparency law.

Power gave a thumb's-up emoji in return.

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