New Brunswick

Closing in for the kill?

David Folster September 8 1980
New Brunswick

Closing in for the kill?

David Folster September 8 1980

Closing in for the kill?

New Brunswick

David Folster

After a decade of faltering Liberal rule, Richard Bennett Hatfield came to power in 1970 as the New Brunswick Tories’ fair-haired boy. Earnestness was his pitch, credibility his biggest asset. “I give you my word, and my word is good,” he declared. The credible image was eventually pocked, notably by the Bricklin sports car fiasco, but he still won re-election twice. By last week, however, Hatfield’s competence and integrity as a provincial leader (and, by extension, his credibility as a national constitutional debater) were once more under assault—and the premier faced the gravest crisis of his 10 years in office.

Specifically, Hatfield stood accused of condoning illegal Tory fund-raising practices and of lying to the N.B. legislature and public when he said, in 1977, that he had “no knowledge” of a political kickbacks scheme. His accuser: provincial Liberal leader Joseph Zenon Daigle, who said the premier had violated his oath of office and should resign. Normally the kind of rhetoric that could be dismissed as so much political posturing, Daigle’s case this time was buttressed by a recent court judgment that declared the Tories had concocted a fund-raising plan that “bordered on extortion.”

In finding Fredericton lawyer Francis Atkinson, a member of the party’s finance committee, guilty of corruptly paying an agent inside the government for information on contracts and purchases, Mr. Justice J. Paul Barry {Maclean's, Aug. 11) also said he found “very difficult to believe” Hatfield’s testimony at the trial that he had lingered only briefly at a 1972 meeting when the plan was discussed. Barry also condemned the Conservatives’ practice of helping, with supplements from the finance committee’s coffers, cabinet ministers and others who encountered financial difficulty. “The committee could theoretically become more powerful than the government in some matters,” he warned.

Last week, Hatfield called a press conference to deal with these and Dai-

gle’s charges. With characteristic calm, § he had composed himself while waiting g a full fortnight; now his response was co lengthy, indignant, sometimes supercilf ious and, above all, self-absolving. Had he known about the agent the party planted in the government purchasing department, the premier said, he would have removed him. He admitted telling party fund-raisers to get contributions from recipients of government contracts but specifically forbade them to collect amounts based on hard and fast percentages, as Liberals and others have charged was being done.

As for Barry’s comments on the propriety of the party’s “special assistance” payments to its politicians and workers, Hatfield agreed judges had to be “exquisitely sensitive” to conflict of interest possibilities. But, he argued, “it is not appropriate to apply that same type of sensitivity to the political process where the double role of elected persons is an established part of the

unwritten portion of our constitution.” It was a remarkable statement—leaving unanswered what else might be unwritten in the constitution—and in saying it Hatfield seemed to be arguing that different rules applied for politicians and political-party faithful than for the rest of society.

Still, with his aggressive counterattack, Hatfield managed to deflect some of the heat, at least temporarily. It was what Liberals, who hold a grudging respect for Hatfield’s political wiles, had

feared might happen. Two days later Daigle held his own press conference and declared that, since Hatfield had ignored his earlier call to resign, the premier should at least summon the legislature back into session for a “faceto-face confrontation” over the allegations. But, at week’s end, Hatfield was showing no inclination to comply with that request either.

For Hatfield, dancing along a political high wire is nothing new. In 1974, he successfully campaigned for re-election while riding in a Bricklin as a symbol of his government’s successful industrial initiatives; two days after the election, promoter Malcolm Bricklin pointedly revealed the venture was in imminent danger of collapse unless it received a $7-million government infusion (Bricklin got his money, but the project died a year later). More recently, the Conservatives have been getting heavy flak over low worker productivity and high-cost overruns at the Point Lepreau nuclear

power station, still under construction near Saint John (Maclean's, July 7). But Hatfield’s most persistent problem has been the kickback allegations, which really began after he dismissed a cabinet minister, Charles Van Horne, eight years ago for hugely overspending his tourism department budget.

Van Horne (who later received a twoyear suspended sentence and was placed on probation for accepting a bribe) bitterly charged that the Conservatives had a kickbacks setup and that its cover-up would “make Watergate look like a regular Sunday night bingo game.” Meanwhile, RCMP investigators, who had been called in to probe tourism department dealings, also heard from a Newcastle contractor and friend of Van Horne’s, Jack Matchett, that kickbacks of between two and 10 per cent were being charged. Matchett’s allegation caused consternation within the RCMP. Superintendent J. B. Giroux, head of the criminal investigation branch in Fredericton, had originally instructed his men to give priority to any evidence of kickbacks. But, after being briefed on

the Matchett interview, he told them not to investigate anything related to political contributions because they lacked “sufficient grounds.” The three investigators bridled at the decision and eventually conveyed their frustrations to superiors in Ottawa. An internal RCMP review of the matter ensued.

None of that, however, became public until 1977, after former Liberal leader Robert Higgins charged in the N.B. House that the Tories had a kickbacks system and that the government’s justice department had thwarted RCMP probes of it—to the point where the

Mounties had changed their usual practice of informing the department before getting search warrants. Higgins demanded a royal commission investigation, but Hatfield, instead, established a one-man judicial inquiry into claims of political interference with the police.

At the inquiry, Giroux testified he had formed the opinion on his own “that we did not have sufficient grounds to pursue the investigation and I told them [the investigators] they should not pursue these matters, the party contri-

butions.” He so informed Justice Minister John Baxter and “the minister was satisfied,” Giroux noted in a memo to file. In January, 1978, N.B. Chief Justice Charles Hughes, the inquiry commissioner, cleared Baxter and the justice department entirely, and Higgins promptly resigned.

By then, however—as a result of new information and complaints—the Mounties were in fact back investigating political fund-raising. In April, 1977, Atkinson was charged with extortion in connection with a small Fredericton trucking firm that had received government contracts, but the case was dismissed after a preliminary hearing. Earlier this year, another finance committee member, Lawrence Machum, was acquitted after evidence seized from Atkinson was ruled inadmissible, and charges against Allan (Chowder) Woodworth, the party’s plant in government purchasing, were withdrawn.

After Atkinson was found guilty in late July, his lawyer charged his client

was being made a “scapegoat,” and indeed Justice Barry wondered “why only the accused was being tried.” For all that, last Friday Justice Minister Rodman Logan filed notice appealing Atkinson’s unconditional discharge. (Atkinson still faces a charge of nine counts of influence peddling, but the case has been held up for several months pending an appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada on validity of the charge.) Ironically, Atkinson was a victim of his own meticulous recordkeeping—one example of which was a memo he wrote to Woodworth advising that Fredericton’s Sutherland Marine and Equipment Ltd. had agreed to pay “two per cent on all government and related business.”

But what of Richard Hatfield? It was the finance committee he personally appointed in the late 1960s that eventually got into trouble, and certaisly the swirl of events and personalities involved came close to him (see box). But Hatfield denies intimate knowledge, while defending the “special assistance” the Tory committee provided, including a car for Justice Minister Baxter.

Hatfield may yet survive the immediate threat, but some New Brunswick observers believe he has been mortally wounded politically. The bachelor premier, whose lavish travel and entertainment expenses of $47,241 in 1979 have become a minor issue too, might be happy, after a decade in office, to move onto a larger stage. But first he must play out the dark drama back home.