Reprimand sufficient for MLA's 'innocent error,' says Steve Norn's lawyer

In the final day of submissions for the public inquiry into Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA Steve Norn, his lawyer argued that his client made "an innocent mistake" in breaching his isolation. He apologized and should be reprimanded at most, since the process of the inquiry is punishment enough.

Steven Cooper, representing MLA Steve Norn, said that punishment beyond a reprimand would be 'unjust'

Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA Steve Norn's lawyer, Steven Cooper, argued his client made "an innocent mistake" when he broke the mandatory 14-day isolation period after returning to the N.W.T. from Alberta in April. He argued his client apologized and his only punishment should be a reprimand. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

In the final day of submissions Tuesday into Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA Steve Norn's public inquiry, his lawyer, Steven Cooper, said that most politicians have probably broken the code of conduct at some point. 

He said that the standard laid out by the code of conduct for Members of the Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly, "is a high enough threshold that it really is nothing other than dreaming."

He called the standard laid out by the code "a theoretical world in which no politician, or very few, could be said to exist."

The inquiry, which began last month, is assessing whether or not Norn breached the Legislative Assembly's code of conduct when he breached the mandatory 14-day self-isolation period last April after returning to the N.W.T. from Alberta and made inaccurate statements about it in the news.

Over the course of six days, sole adjudicator Ronald L. Barclay heard evidence from 13 witnesses including Norn's family, friends and colleagues at the Legislative Assembly and employees of multiple arms of N.W.T. public health. 

After counsel to the sole adjudicator, Maurice LaPrairie, summarized the hearing, Cooper painted a picture of Norn making an error of judgment while under incredible pressure and in a poor mental state. 

"Innocent errors don't preclude potentially serious consequences," Cooper said, "but it doesn't make them any less innocent."

Cooper said Norn's isolation breach was a misunderstanding on the regulations due to a lack of communication from representatives of public health.

Throughout the hearing, three different health experts were called to testify. Dennis Marchiori, director of compliance and enforcement operations for the COVID-19 Secretariat, Andy Delli Pizzi, the N.W.T's deputy chief public health officer and Stephanie Gilbert, the COVID-19 Outbreak Clinical Coordinator for the Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority.

Cooper said that they provided "confusing" and at times conflicting information on when isolation starts and ends. As a result, he said it was understandable that Norn would make the error. 

"Leaving aside the power of retrospection, he believed that his isolation period had ended," Cooper said Tuesday. "We can all be critics in that regard, but it is what he reasonably believed."

Allegations of misleading the public

On whether or not he mislead the public with conflicting statements to the media, Cooper addressed the statement Norn made to Cabin Radio's Ollie Williams published in an article on April 23

Norn told Williams that he isolated as instructed from April 4 to 18. 

To this incorrect statement, Cooper described Norn as being unprepared to answer the phone, thinking it was a call from his cousin who has a similar number. 

"He's under political pressure, he's under media scrutiny, he's dealing with chiefs calling on him to resign, others calling on him to stay ... There is hardly any form of pressure that Norn is not experiencing, including the fact that he's now COVID positive." 

Norn later told CBC News reporter Liny Lamberink that he had in fact attended the legislature on April 17, the day before his isolation was complete

Here, Cooper said, Norn is "admitting to his wrongdoing," and taking responsibility for his actions.

Norn knows he's a public figure and that there are cameras in the Legislative Assembly, "so why on earth would Mr. Norn lie intentionally knowing as a politician already under considerable public scrutiny, that he would be found out," Cooper said. "It makes no sense."

"Evidence favours the position that Mr. Norn takes that he simply made a series of errors." 

'Unfair and unjust'

If Barclay does find Norn to be guilty of breaching the MLA code of conduct, Cooper argued any consequences beyond a reprimand would be "unfair and unjust."

Cooper said that the process of the inquiry and resigning his privacy should be punishment enough. 

Due to the nature of a small town or city like Yellowknife, Cooper said that "Norn is suffering regardless of whether you find he's done nothing at all wrong."

"He got his dates wrong, he admitted it. He admitted his error to the CBC, he admitted his error under oath here. Most importantly he apologized," Cooper told Barclay in his final submissions. 

If Barclay finds Norn guilty, he can recommend the Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories to:

  • reprimand him,
  • order a fine not exceeding $25,000,
  • order restitution or pay for any losses,
  • suspend the member for up to 30 days,
  • make an order declaring the seat vacant.

Barclay only has the power to make recommendations to the Legislative Assembly, which it can choose to accept or reject. 

No date has yet been shared on when Barclay will render his decision. CBC News inquired on the timeline with the office of the sole adjudicator but did not hear back prior to publication.