Yakabuski apologizes for reference letter to supporter charged with sexual assault
Provincial integrity commissioner advises against reference letters, unless under subpoena
The MPP for Renfew-Nipissing-Pembroke has apologized for writing a character reference for a constituent — who was also a political supporter — charged with assaulting his wife.
In an unusual case reported last week by the CBC, police charged Elmer Raycroft with four counts of assault and three counts of sexual assault in April 2014 against his wife Isabelle.
Raycroft was eventually found guilty of six of the seven charges.
But a different judge dealing with the sentencing overturned that decision, declaring a mistrial a couple weeks after numerous local residents showed up to support Raycroft, including the mayor of McNab/Braeside. Defence lawyer Rodney Sellar submitted letters from locals of good standing testifying to Raycroft's solid character.
I should not have provided a letter for a matter that was before the courts and I apologize for doing so.- John Yakabuski, MPP for Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke
One of the letters Sellar referenced was written by John Yakabuski, who's been MPP for the eastern Ontario riding since 2003.
Raycroft had "been very active with his local M.P.P., John Yakabuski," Sellar told the judge at the pre-sentencing hearing in September 2015. "Here's a confirming letter from him saying how he's helped in the community in that endeavour, and no matter what your politics are, clearly people that have the time and are prepared to assist in our democracy… are people that we can count on."
In a statement, Yakabuski has apologized for writing the letter, which he said he submitted in June 2014, before the criminal case against Raycroft had even started.
"I acknowledge that I should not have provided a letter for a matter that was before the courts and I apologize for doing so," said Yakabuski's emailed statement.
Raycroft, the former deputy mayor of McNab-Braeside township, was a political supporter of Yakabuski, as well as a constituent. Raycroft has been a member of the PC riding association executive and has helped out with at least one fundraiser for the MPP.
Questions about letter unanswered
It's not clear exactly what Yakabuski's letter of reference says, or whether it was written on official government letterhead, because no one has been able to see a copy of it.
The letter appears not to be filed with the court.
Sellar refused comment on why the reference letters, referred to — and in at least one case, read aloud in court— were not filed as exhibits.
And Yakabuski did not respond to a request for a copy of the letter, or to our request for an interview.
Integrity Commissioner advises against court references
The case raises questions about, among other things, the appropriateness of public office holders giving personal references.
One former Ottawa city councillor used to be chastised by the city clerk department for showing up to committee of adjustment meetings to support constituents who were applying for minor variances for things like reduced parking, lest it appear the councillor be seen as trying to influence the decision.
The stakes in court are much higher than those brought to the committee of adjustment. But there appears to be no law prohibiting an elected official from giving a character reference in court, although the advice that does exist recommends against doing so.
The province's Office of the Integrity Commissioner advises against providing character references in court. On the integrity commissioner's web page that offers guidance on writing letters of reference, a sample inquiry involves a friend of a cabinet minister asking for a letter of reference to be used in court.
"The Commissioner advised that any involvement might be interpreted as an attempt to interfere with and/or influence the legal process, contrary to the [Members' Integrity] Act," reads the answer. "The Commissioner advised that the Minister abstain from providing a character reference unless compelled to do so by subpoena."
Differing views on appropriateness
Guy Giorno is a partner with law firm Fasken Martineau, who specialized in accountability and ethics laws, and chairs the "Law of Lobbying and Ethics" committee of the Canadian Bar Association.
You're never not the mayor, you're never not the MPP.- Guy Giorno, partner Fasken Martineau
He would not comment on specifics of any case, but said the circumstances for "stepping outside the role of one's position" and acting as an "individual" are fairly limited, and usually involve situations with immediate family members.
"A public official never steps out of the role of public official," said Giorno, who was once chief of staff to former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper. "You're never not the mayor, you're never not the MPP."
But not everyone in the legal community sees an issue with the writing of reference letters.
"The worry is that you don't want a member of a council, a legislature or Parliament to be interfering in the judicial process," said Greg Levine, a lawyer specializing in ethics and former integrity commissioner a number of Ontario municipalities.
However, he — like Osgoode Hall Law School dean Lorne Sossin — makes a distinction between a politician commenting on his or her personal experience with someone, and offering an opinion on a criminal case
Sossin was asked earlier this year by Canadian Lawyer magazine to comment on a situation where an MP gave a reference letter for a former Oshawa city councillor found guilty of kidnapping the city solicitor at gunpoint.
"Certainly, if an MP took a public position in a criminal case, this would be problematic," Sossin told the magazine. "But an MP commenting in a court document on personal experience with an accused/offender without taking a position — I would not view this as running afoul of the rule/convention."