Government spent more than $213K defending Seamus O'Regan in small claims court

The legal cost of defending Liberal cabinet minister Seamus O'Regan in a small claims court defamation case launched by a veterans advocate has now topped $213,500, according to a document tabled in the Senate.

Veterans advocate says he's surprised by how far the government will go to avoid admitting error

Federal Natural Resources Minister Seamus O'Regan. The federal government spent more than $200,000 defending O'Regan on a lawsuit filed when he was minister of Veterans Affairs. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

The legal cost of defending Liberal cabinet minister Seamus O'Regan in a small claims court defamation case launched by a veterans advocate has now topped $213,500, according to a document tabled in the Senate.

The figure, compiled by Justice Minister David Lametti's office, was released recently by Sen. Marc Gold, the government's representative in the Senate, following an exchange last spring with Conservative Sen. Don Plett.

It captures the cost of litigation and support services delivered by the government lawyers and staff who worked on the lawsuit launched two years ago by Sean Bruyea, a former air force intelligence officer. Bruyea claimed O'Regan — who was the Veterans Affairs minister at the time — defamed him in a February 2018 opinion piece in The Hill Times, a parliamentary precinct publication.

The federal government agreed last June to settle the lawsuit, which originally asked for $25,000. The final settlement was paid last week. The terms were not disclosed to the public and the payment to Bruyea was not factored into the Department of Justice's estimate of the costs.

'This was not a frivolous claim'

"I'm floored," Plett said Tuesday in an interview with CBC News. "I feel the government has to defend itself against frivolous claims. This was not a frivolous claim. This person was defamed by a minister and the government spent almost ten times the original claim to defend against it."

Had the government "negotiated in good faith, this could have been dealt with honourably," he added.

Plett said the disclosure of the figure makes him wonder how much the current government spent fighting other "questionable" high-profile cases — such as the criminal case against former vice-admiral Mark Norman, which concluded with the Crown staying the single breach of trust charge filed against the ex-commander of the navy.

Vice-Admiral Mark Norman arrives at court in Ottawa on Thursday, March 28, 2019. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

As of last December, the federal government acknowledged spending $1.4 million on prosecuting Norman, who was accused of leaking cabinet secrets. But that sum does not include the cost of the RCMP's investigation, the former senior military officer's settlement and the cost of covering his legal fees.

The government also has racked up legal costs fighting other veterans in court — most recently former corporal Charles Scott, whose Veterans Affairs case file was mishandled on at least two occasions.

Plett said it's a disturbing pattern for a government that came to power five years ago arguing that no veteran should have to fight the federal government in court.

A spokesperson for O'Regan, who is now natural resources minister, would not comment.

"A settlement has been reached in this case. In keeping with the settlement, we will not be commenting further," said Ian Cameron.

Bruyea said he was surprised by the amount of public money spent on fighting his case.

Veterans advocate Sean Bruyea sued over a Feb. 26, 2018 article written by Seamus O'Regan, the veterans minister at the time. (CBC)

"What? Really?" he said, adding he was astonished by what he called "the lengths the government will go to, with other Canadians' money, to avoid saying 'I'm sorry, I was wrong.'"

His lawsuit stemmed from a Feb. 26, 2018 column written by O'Regan and printed in the Hill Times, a twice-weekly publication that covers Parliament.

The minister's piece was a rebuttal to an article by Bruyea published two weeks prior about the Liberal government's plan to offer veterans the option of taking either a pension for life or a lump sum payment for injuries sustained in the line of duty.

In his original opinion piece, Bruyea compared the old pension system, enacted by the former Conservative government, with the overhauled one put in place by the Liberals that came into effect on April 1, 2019.

Backing up his claims with data, Bruyea said "the numbers don't add up." He argued that the pain and suffering compensation for ex-soldiers is "grossly unfair" and that disability claims had become "miserly."

O'Regan responded with his own column saying it was time for a "reality check" and arguing that "individuals like Sean Bruyea" are stating "mistruths about Pension for Life ... to suit their own agenda."

A federal government statement released last June said that by agreeing to the settlement, neither the minister nor the federal government "admit any liability or wrongdoing."


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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