Nfld. & Labrador·Weekend Briefing

Dwight Ball was once told The Rooms scandal was a 2-day story. It didn't work out that way

This wasn’t a patronage scandal over the hiring of a well-placed Liberal at a plum job, writes John Gushue, but rather the removal of a well-connected Liberal from a position of much greater power.

This wasn't about patronage; this was about pushing someone out from the top circles of power

Premier Dwight Ball speaks with reporters earlier this week at the House of Assembly, which focused almost exclusively on a report about Christopher Mitchelmore. (Peter Cowan/CBC)

As the tread marks dry on the back of Christopher Mitchelmore, let's step back a bit and look at the whole scandal that had him on his feet Thursday night, apologizing and taking sole responsibility for something few in politics believe he did all by himself.

Let's also recast the thinking of what the whole story is about, because I think there's a massive misunderstanding of what happened.

You see it on social media, hear it on the radio and pick it up on the street: many people think this is a patronage scandal, about how people in power put someone in a cushy job at a public institution, presumably as a reward.

That's not what happened.

According to Liberal sources and reporting by the CBC newsroom, what happened is this: people in power removed someone from a position of great influence, and put her into a job where she would be out of the inner circle.

Carla Foote wasn't so much hired by The Rooms as ejected from the centre of power in the provincial government.

Carla Foote is seen in the Liberal offices in 2013, when the party was in opposition. She played a key role in helping Ball take the party to government two years later. (CBC)

As the associate secretary to cabinet in Executive Council, with a responsibility for government communications, Foote was on a top perch of influence in the Dwight Ball administration. 

Did Foote even want the marketing job at The Rooms that was made available to her? We don't know. She has not done interviews, nor did she speak with Citizens' Representative Bradley Moss, whose investigation led to this week's developments at the legislature.

By accounts, Foote was upset to learn she was being moved from her post, one of the most influential roles in government. 

The move played out in the fall of 2018, as the governing Liberals were getting ready for an election that — on paper — would be a year away. Some key Liberals, though, wanted to go earlier (and did), and there was a mood at the top to clear decks in preparation for an election battle. That apparently meant Foote, who had been working closely in the inner circle, had to go.

Hiring form was notably left blank 

Foote landed at The Rooms in a marketing job that had been vacant, and which originally had a lower salary. (As CBC reported months ago, the reason for hiring on her form was left blank.)

Now, to hear Mitchelmore tell it — in the astonishing few words he used to speak in the House of Assembly on Thursday, during the two times he rose on his feet — it was all him. Or, to be precise, it wasn't a particular person.

Christopher Mitchelmore in 2018, when he said he felt Carla Foote was most qualified to fill a job at The Rooms. No interviews were done for the upgraded position that Foote filled. (Gary Locke/CBC)

"The premier did not direct me in this matter," Mitchelmore said Thursday afternoon, hours before he apologized to the house and the public once he was censured in a legislative vote.

The spotlight had swung on Ball earlier in the week, once Moss's investigation into the matter came to light — first through a CBC report, then through release to the legislature. Titled "The Mitchelmore Report," the text lays out — from the perspective of former Rooms CEO Dean Brinton — that the directive to move Foote to The Rooms came from the very top.

Ball emphatically denied that he called the play on this one. He denied it all.

Later, amid questioning about the roles of senior officials in the premier's office, Ball said no one in his office made any move to have Foote appointed to The Rooms.

Which would leave us to conclude that Mitchelmore is so powerful a cabinet minister that he could force a Crown agency to not only scrap a completed hiring process but personally dictate who should get the job.

That's remarkable.

Mitchelmore, 34, has been an MHA for half of his adult life, and is a relative newcomer to the Liberal fold. He was elected first, let's remember, as a New Democrat, left that caucus with former St. John's MHA Dale Kirby, and then joined the Liberals in 2014.

He's certainly not on the outs with the premier.

A highly conspicuous choice of wording

On Thursday, Ball described Mitchelmore as a "loyal soldier" — a highly conspicuous choice of wording, don't you think? I doubt it was intentional on Ball's part, but that's the kind of phrase that automatically makes me think that Mitchelmore will one day be rewarded after being punished.

(By the way, what do soldiers do? They follow orders.)

Carla Foote is pictured here with her mother, Lt.-Gov. Judy Foote, who played an influential role in Liberal politics for almost three decades. (Lieutenant Governor Judy M. Foote/Facebook)

The narrative that this is a patronage scandal, rather than an abuse of process, ties into a long-running and deep suspicion that the public has about hiring competitions already.

According to sources, the Liberals were keen to find something respectable for Foote, who is notably the daughter of Lt.-Gov. Judy Foote, herself a former federal and provincial minister, and who had been a formidable force in Liberal circles for decades. She was, after all, the director of communications during the Clyde Wells administration. She apparently remains close to the current premier.

It's not surprising that some believe the brass were keen not to cause ripples in a part of the party.

Ripples may have been avoided, but big waves are still crashing on the government. This story has evolved from one about hiring to one about credibility.

Opposition Leader Ches Crosbie is not buying what Dwight Ball is selling.

"They're thinking his pants are on fire," Crosbie said Thursday.

So much for a 2-day story

During his lengthy reporting on this story, my colleague Anthony Germain learned from his sources that a top official had advised Ball that this would be a "two-day story": flak for a day, some more the next, then kaput. Done.

Not quite.

This is more like a two-year story now. This started in 2018. It's now near the end of 2019, and there is a strong likelihood this story will play out in 2020, too.

Judy Foote, then a federal cabinet minister, and Premier Dwight Ball are seen in 2016 when they signed a funding agreement in Bay Roberts. (Peter Cowan/CBC)

Both the Tories and the NDP are vowing to press ahead for more information. Things may yet play out in the courts. CBC is not stopping its reporting. 

Some questions remain unanswered:

How, exactly, did Mitchelmore pick that particular job at The Rooms?

How did Carla Foote know it was vacant?

Who is A.B., the person that the former CEO of The Rooms had hired just before the Foote transfer was thrust upon the organization? Only those initials are used in the Mitchelmore Report. What action might that person take?

The issue, it seems to me, is not about a simple job at a cultural complex. It's way beyond that now. It seems more and more like an insight into integrity and credibility. 

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About the Author

John Gushue

CBC News

John Gushue is the digital senior producer with CBC News in St. John's.

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