Saturday, March 24, 2012

You're Steve Ashton's wife? Sooooo .....?

Ashton in spot over wife's fit
Ashtons questioned after incident at Winnipeg airport

By Bruce Owen
Saturday, March 24, 2012

Transport Minister Steve Ashton's wife is being investigated as a possible threat to air safety after an incident that also raises questions about whether the senior cabinet minister acted inappropriately.

The Free Press has learned Ashton's wife, Hari Dimitrakopoulou-Ashton, was detained by Winnipeg police last week at Richardson International Airport after a run-in with Calm Air employees. After police allowed her to call her husband, the cabinet minister rushed to the airport and then reportedly began throwing his weight around after gaining access to the airport's emergency operations centre.

Police were initially called to the Calm Air boarding area at Gate 21 on the second level of the airport by employees concerned about Dimitrakopoulou-Ashton's behaviour. She was one of several passengers on flight 501 to Thompson, which had been cancelled because of freezing rain in Thompson. The flight was supposed to have taken off at 7 a.m. on March 17.

Officers met with two Calm Air employees who said they had been dealing with Dimitrakopoulou-Ashton for a couple of hours and they, "had reached a point where they felt they had to call police," a source said.

"This lady comes up and says she's Steve Ashton's wife. The airline knows her quite well. The agents described her as being demeaning. She basically told them they're incompetent and that they're only there to look pretty."

Dimitrakopoulou-Ashton demanded vouchers for food and drink, but the agents told her no vouchers would be handed out because the cancellation was weather-related. Dimitrakopoulou-Ashton also demanded to see the Calm Air supervisor. "She began raising her voice and she became more abusive toward the staff," the source said.

Because of her behaviour, Calm Air staff decided not to allow Dimitrakopoulou-Ashton to board the next flight to Thompson.

Dimitrakopoulou-Ashton was temporarily detained by officers with the police service's airport unit after she refused to identify herself, according to police sources. Dimitrakopoulou-Ashton was not charged and was released into the care of her husband.

However, sources say federal authorities are investigating whether Dimitrakopoulou-Ashton will be placed on Canada's no-fly list. During the course of dealing with the Ashtons, national security officials in Ottawa contacted police to determine whether Dimitrakopoulou-Ashton posed a threat to air safety.

Ashton, in Toronto for the federal NDP's leadership convention where his daughter Niki Ashton is a candidate, told the Free Press he did not abuse his cabinet position to help his wife. "I wasn't even there. I went to pick her up," he said.

Ashton acknowledged there were some unfortunate things that happened, but said it's behind them now.

"There was a bit of an incident there. They actually asked her to leave. But it's resolved. They indicated they'd be apologizing to her. It's an unfortunate circumstance. It's dealt with."

But questions remain about how Ashton dealt with the matter and how he was able to enter the airport's emergency operations centre. "He's screaming and yelling and raising his voice and then he went off on a tangent," the source said.

Police eventually calmed down the couple and the transport minister agreed to take custody of his wife so she wasn't charged with causing a disturbance.

"He apologized for the whole thing and her parting shot was she's going to sue Calm Air," the source said.

Progressive Conservative transportation critic Ralph Eichler said Ashton has to explain his role in the matter to Manitobans.

"If it's true, I'm very concerned," Eichler said. "If it is, minister Ashton got access to airport operations in a way no average Manitoban could. It's important we get all the facts so we can be sure airport operations are not subject to political interference."

Calm Air and one of the agents involved declined to comment Friday. Ashton, MLA for Thompson since 1981, said Calm Air is the airline he and his wife always use when they fly to Thompson, where he's lived since 1967.

With files from Mia Rabson


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