Sudbury

Constable Robert Rheaume accused of attacking integrity of Sudbury police in Facebook posts

A Sudbury police constable pleaded not guilty Tuesday at a disciplinary hearing where he is accused of attacking the integrity of the police department on Facebook.

Warning: This story contains language that may offend some readers

Constable Robert Rheaume pleaded not guilty to charges of discreditable conduct at his disciplinary hearing in Sudbury on Tuesday. (Erik White/CBC)

A Sudbury police constable pleaded not guilty Tuesday at a disciplinary hearing where he is accused of attacking the integrity of the police department.

Constable Robert Rheaume is accused of discreditable conduct for two Facebook posts written in March 2018 where he criticizes the salaries and pay raises received by several senior civilian staff at the police department.

On Mar. 24, Rheaume commented on a story on the Sudbury Star Facebook page about the annual Sunshine List, naming provincial employees who make more than $100,000.

He specifically named Sudbury police chief administrative officer Sharon Baiden, questioned her $205,000 salary and claimed she had received a 50 per cent raise in recent years.

"Sudbury taxpayers should be asking council how that happened," Rheaume wrote.

Constable Robert Rheaume, who has been with Greater Sudbury Police Services for 17 years, believes his Facebook posts about the salaries of police employees is protected under freedom of expression. (Robin De Angelis/CBC)

Then on Mar. 28, Rheaume commented on a post on a friend's page about gas prices. He named three other senior staffers at the police service, questioning their raises and salaries.

"Your taxes and mine going up because of the police services board approving these raises," Rheaume wrote.

"How do you f--kin' justify that?"

Sudbury police lawyer David Migicovsky told the disciplinary hearing Tuesday that Rheaume violated several police department policies, including those dealing with workplace harassment and social media.

Migicovsky claimed Rheaume intended this as an "attack on the integrity and reputation" of the Greater Sudbury Police Service, and to embarass the senior managers with whom he had a "difficult working relationship."

He further argued that "freedom of expression is not an absolute right" especially for members of para-military like police departments.

Frank Elsner was the Greater Sudbury police chief until 2013, when he left to head up the police department in Victoria, B.C. (Amy Dodge/CBC)

"It is not up to individuals to decide whether they should follow (policies)," Migicovsky said.

"Constable Rheaume is not a whisteblower. He simply did not comply with his duty of loyalty."

At one point in the hearing, Migicovsky suggested "it was not a coincidence that they were four women" whose salaries Rheaume commented on. That prompted Rheaume to turn in his chair and mouth something in the police lawyer's direction.

Migicovsky quoted from interviews with the four women who found the Facebook posts "demeaning and embarassing" with Baiden taking specific exception to the post mentioning that she received a raise during the final year of the tenure of former Sudbury police chief Frank Elsner.

After leaving Greater Sudbury in 2013, he was chief of police in Victoria, B.C. before resigning amid allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct.

Quoting from interview transcripts entered into evidence, Migicovsky said Baiden feels that by mentioning Elsner, Rheaume was trying to make people wonder if "You know, did Frank have to pay me off or something?"

Constable Rheaume's lawyer argues that he had a constitutional right to make political comments on Facebook that trump any policy set out by his employer. (The Associated Press)

Rheaume's lawyer Peter Brauti called Migicovsky's arguments a "very dangerous prosecution" that look to enforce an "unlawful gag order restricting protected free speech."

Brauti told the hearing that the protection in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms for political free speech "trumps" any policy set out by Rheaume's employer.

"It is clear, you are able to talk about policing if you're a police officer, as long as your comments are tempered in a way that is professional," Brauti said.

"Even if the speech is colourful, even if it borders on aggression ... People should be able to forcefully criticize government decisions."

Brauti called the prosecutor's concerns about the mention of Chief Elsner "oversensitive speculation."

The decision now rests with hearing officer Greg Walton, who is expected to rule in the coming months. 

About the Author

Erik White

journalist

Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to erik.white@cbc.ca