Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Will someone/anyone please file an Access To Information request!

Good Day Readers:

Only in the Harper government (formerly the government of Canada) would it rack up huge legal bills which taxpayers will have to pay then refuse to tell them how much. What if Ms Guergis wins will voters be responsible for her damage award too?

Sincerely,
Clare L. Pieuk
Government mum over cost of lawyer defending Harper in defamation suit

By Mark Kennedy, Post Media News
Wednesday, May 9, 2012
Helena Guergis in 2012 is suing Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the Conservative Party and several other people for $1.3 million over her 2010 ejection from the Tory caucus. (Photograph by: Chris Wattie/Reuters files)

OTTAWA — The Conservative government is refusing to reveal how much Canadian taxpayers are being charged to pay a private-sector lawyer hired to represent Prime Minister Stephen Harper and three other people who are among those being sued for defamation by former Tory cabinet minister Helena Guergis.

On Parliament Hill Wednesday, opposition politicians reacted with dismay — accusing Harper of unacceptable secrecy in an effort to hide his irresponsible spending.

The developments occurred in the wake of an exclusive Postmedia News report which revealed that the government bypassed the use of a staff lawyer from the Department of Justice to handle the lawsuit for Harper.

Instead, the governing Tories chose to reach into the private sector to select one of the country's leading litigators — Robert Staley.

When the government was first approached by Postmedia News about the issue, Harper's chief spokesman, Andrew MacDougall, said that the prime minister's "counsel is being paid the standard rate that would be paid to a DoJ (department of justice) lawyer." He did not specify the amount of that rate.

However, MacDougall later issued a "clarification" on behalf of the government.

"Standard rate means the standard Crown rate for external counsel," he wrote in an email. "DoJ counsel are salaried."

In the House of Commons Wednesday, NDP MP Charlie Angus pressed the government for an answer on the size of the legal bill now being footed by taxpayers because of Harper's dispute with Guergis.

"We all remember how he made all these unsubstantiated claims against Ms. Guergis," Angus said of Harper.

"No wonder he is getting sued. So it's a simple question. How much are taxpayers getting dinged to defend the prime minister against the unsubstantiated claims that he made against a former colleague?"

But Treasury Board President Tony Clement did not answer the question, choosing instead to focus on how politicians in government and the opposition are provided legal representation.

"Everything is in accordance with Treasury Board guidelines."

Meanwhile, the prime minister's office replied by email to a query from Postmedia News: What is the "standard rate" for paying outside lawyers and how much is Staley being paid per hour to represent Harper and three others?

MacDougall said he "can't" answer that question, but did add: "Our view is that the taxpayers shouldn't be paying anything because this claim is completely baseless and without merit."

Angus, speaking to reporters after question period, said he is "very concerned" that a "massive legal bill" might be in the offing.

He blasted the Tories for their refusal to be open about how much taxpayers are paying Harper's private-sector lawyer.

"If this number was a reasonable number, they would give it and that's all we're asking because what we've seen again and again is the secrecy of this government, the fact they're using taxpayers' dollars like they're Versailles kings."

Angus said he has no problem with Harper being defended, but he doesn't understand why the work can't go to staff in the Justice Department.

"Let's just be clear up front. We have Justice Department lawyers who are paid to do this work, who are fully equipped. Now we're being told they're not qualified, they had to go to the private sector.

"I don't know anybody in the private sector who has a sign on their door that says, 'Specialist in parliamentary legal law', when we have a whole department that does it. So what does it cost? Just give us that answer."

MacDougall said "it was deemed inappropriate" for government lawyers to represent Harper since the litigation is between elected officials (Guergis, who was a former Tory MP) and "exempt staff" who were members of the same government.

As well, he said part of the claim involves issues related to "membership in cabinet" — Harper turfed Guergis from cabinet — and that this "is outside of the areas DoJ counsel would typically be involved in."

That meant the work went to Staley, a Toronto-based lawyer who is a partner at the law firm of Bennett Jones.

In December, lawyers for Guergis filed a lawsuit in an Ottawa court against Harper, the Conservative party and several other people for $1.3 million over her 2010 ejection from the Tory caucus stemming from allegations of improper conduct.

Her statement of claim seeks damages from the prime minister for his alleged "conspiracy, defamation, misfeasance in public office, intentional infliction of mental suffering, and negligence." None of the allegations have been proven in court.

On February 9, Harper's lawyer served a notice of intent to defend the prime minister and three other people named in the lawsuit: Raymond Novak, the prime minister's principal secretary: Labor Minister Lisa Raitt; and Conservative MP Shelly Glover.

Among the other defendants are Guy Giorno, who served as Harper's chief of staff from July 2008 to January 2011, and is no longer in government. He has retained his own lawyer.

On Wednesday, Giorno's lawyer filed a motion in court seeking the dismissal of the lawsuit because he says it is frivolous, devoid of fact and based on bald assertions. Giorno contends that the lawsuit should not proceed because the removal or resignation of Guergis from cabinet did not constitute misfeasance in public office.

Lawyers for the various clients held a meeting Wednesday and set a court date for September 19 and 20 to argue Giorno's motion. It's expected that Harper's lawyer will file a similar motion this week seeking the dismissal of the lawsuit.

Stephen Victor, the lawyer representing Guergis, told Postmedia News Wednesday that he will "vigorously" oppose the motions.

"They are alleging that the statement of claim discloses no reasonable causes of action," said Victor.

"It is our position that Ms. Guergis's statement of claim discloses reasonable causes of action. We're hopeful that the court will agree with our position, so that will enable the evidence to be presented in an open court of law and the evidence will see the light of day."

Guergis was in Harper's cabinet as minister of state for the status of women. That ended suddenly in April 2010 when Harper announced that his office had become aware of "serious allegations'' regarding her conduct which he was forwarding to the RCMP and to the ethics commissioner.

mkennedy@postmedia.com
Twitter.com/Mark_Kennedy_

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