Dhalla controversy takes twist with accounts from advocate, lawyer

Controversy surrounding allegations of caregiver mistreatment at the hands of Liberal MP Ruby Dhalla deepened Thursday after an employee advocate and a lawyer representing an anonymous Ontario man added their voices to the mix.

Kenney dismisses suggestions of tainting investigation by his department

Controversy surrounding allegations of caregiver mistreatment at the hands of Liberal MP Ruby Dhalla deepened Thursday after an employee advocate and a lawyer representing an anonymous Ontario man added their voices to the mix.

Agatha Mason, the executive director of Intercede, a non-profit group that helps immigrant women in Toronto, told a parliamentary committee she got a call about a year ago from Richelyn Tongson, who was working in the Dhalla home.

Tongson, 37, and Magdalene Gordo, 31, say they were hired in early 2008 to work in Dhalla's family home in Mississauga, Ont., to care for her mother, Tavinder. They claim Dhalla paid them only a fraction of the minimum wage and made them work long hours doing household chores, allegations the MP denies.

Mason testified Tongson was sobbing because she said Dhalla had her passport and birth certificate and refused to give them back.

Mason said she first phoned Neil Dhalla, Ruby Dhalla's brother, because it was a local number. He told her to call his sister in Ottawa.

Mason, who said she remembered hesitating before making the long-distance call because of Intercede's small budget, recalled that conversation on Thursday for the committee.

"I gave her clear direction she was breaking the law and she had 24 hours in which to return the documents. I remember that clearly."

Mason said the documents were returned the next day, so for her the case was closed, until it resurfaced in the media a few weeks ago.

Mason characterized the phone call as unpleasant, saying Dhalla argued with her and asked whether Mason knew who she was talking to. Mason said she didn't know when she made the phone call that Dhalla was a politician.

Dhalla likened to Pinocchio

Dhalla says that when Mason phoned, she simply referred the woman to her brother.

When told that Dhalla's recollection of the phone call differed from her account, Mason offered a blunt response.

"She has a conscience. These are one of the occasions when I wish the childhood story of Pinocchio is true," she said, gesturing as if her nose were growing.

Dhalla's lawyer, Howard Levitt, told a Toronto news conference late Thursday afternoon the fact that Mason phoned Neil Dhalla first is proof the nanny agency considered him the employer of record.

"Ironically, that evidence supports what Ruby Dhalla is saying and proves she's not the employer," he said.

He also suggested the women may not have achieved the amount of working hours needed to achieve landed status and were trying to prove special humanitarian or compassionate circumstances so they wouldn't be deported.

Liberal committee member Jim Karygiannis said he found Mason's testimony hard to believe.

"This is a witch hunt in a kangaroo court. Ms. Mason said she called Ottawa and she didn't realize when she called the office of Ms. Ruby Dhalla that she was a member of Parliament? Come on, let's get real here," said Karygiannis.

Lawyer claims client sponsored Gordo

The story took another strange twist Thursday when lawyer Shawn Philbert, who attended the news conference with Levitt, said he represents a Toronto-area man who originally sponsored one of the caregivers.

Philbert wouldn't identify his client, saying only he lives in the Greater Toronto Area and represents "the average person who needs a nanny."

He said the man sponsored Magdalene Gordo to come to Canada from the Philippines in December 2007 to care for his four children, but that she told him she was sick and left after three weeks.

Philbert said Gordo made similar allegations of mistreatment against his client to the nanny agency that brought her to Canada. However, Philbert didn't offer any evidence of the complaint to the agency or documents of employment, saying the news conference happened on such short notice he didn't have time to gather the papers.

Levitt said Philbert's client originally contacted his office after hearing about the Dhalla controversy in the news and recognizing the name of the nanny.

Philbert said his client is uncomfortable with any media attention, but "felt he wanted to make things right."

Minister criticized for interference

Meanwhile, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney dismissed suggestions that his personal handling of the Dhalla affair could taint any investigation by his department.

"I think anyone who's floating these conspiracy theories undermines their own credibility," he told reporters in Ottawa Thursday. "The reality is that our department investigates alleged offences of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act as a regular order of business without any oversight or connection to myself or my office."

But political observers who've tracked Kenney's response to the live-in caregivers' claims against Dhalla aren't so sure.

Though Kenney initially talked about not wanting to politicize the process, his spokesman, Alykhan Velshi, downloaded documents and interview transcripts related to the Dhalla case that were posted on the Toronto Star website and handed them out to reporters in an attempt to discredit Dhalla.

Velshi also encouraged reporters to follow certain lines of questioning. He took the action despite the fact it would fall to Kenney's department to probe any breach of the federal Live-In Caregiver Program.

"I feel very uncomfortable with the handing out of those documents — even though they're in the public domain," said Henry Jacek, a political scientist at McMaster University.

"It does send a signal to the people in the department that the minister has ... a pretty critical stance on this: if somebody wants to go up against the minister, then they better be very careful — or maybe not do it."

But Kenney said he has no role in what his department officials do next.

"If they're, in fact, investigating this particular matter, it's without my knowledge or involvement," he said. "And obviously, there are a number of different allegations here that relate to a number of different laws, including the tax acts, the Ontario labour code, etc., and we leave all of those to the responsible agencies to look at objectively."

However, political scientist Sharon Sutherland of the University of Victoria's Centre for Global Studies said Kenney has "tainted his own rule."

She said the Dhalla feeding frenzy has reduced a serious policy matter about the exploitation of foreign workers into "a kind of Punch and Judy show."

"I don't know why the Speaker hasn't stepped in," she said. "And I don't understand why the prime minister hasn't stepped in to put a lid on his minister."

With files from The Canadian Press