The terse press release from the Prime Minister’s Office baffled and intrigued the nation. After a mere 10 days in cabinet, fledgling Mines Minister Roger Simmons resigned his coveted portfolio early last week and returned to the Liberal back benches. In a letter attached to the announcement, Simmons, the MP for Burin-St. George’s, told Pierre Trudeau that he was leaving for “personal reasons”— and he later insisted to reporters that “personal means personal.” For his part,
Trudeau said in a letter he approved from Greece, “I agree that the personal reasons involved necessitate this action and regret that under the circumstances you will be unable to continue in the ministry.” Then both Trudeau’s office and Simmons lapsed into stubborn silence. But the matter would not die. Late last week the Ottawa Citizen reported that Simmons was being investigated for “tax irregularities,” and there was a growing clamor for an explanation both in Ottawa and in Simmons’ riding.
Maclean's has confirmed that justice department officials are studying the possibility of tax evasion charges against Simmons, based on evidence sent to them by Revenue Canada. The Revenue Canada tax file included a recommendation that Simmons be prosecuted. So far, there is no indication whether those charges will actually be laid. Officials in both departments agree that usually an individual knows an investigation is under way because an inquiry involves a thorough audit and lengthy interviews with investigators. Maclean's has also learned that the investigation is related to income received while Simmons was a member of the Newfoundland House of Assembly from 1973 to mid-1979.
It is unclear whether Simmons men-
tioned a tax problem to Trudeau during the traditional interview prior to his cabinet appointment. Justice department officials learned of the appointment late on a Friday afternoon, Aug. 12, and early the following week they informed the clerk of the Privy Council, Gordon Osbaldeston, of the investigation. Osbaldeston told Trudeau’s aides, who in turn informed the Prime Minister, who is vacationing in the Mediterranean.
Trudeau is known to take a severe view of tax irregularities. On at least
one occasion he decided not to bring an MP into the cabinet because the MP faced a civil tax penalty. The MP eventually became a minister after he had proven his innocence. “He [Simmons] was hoping it would remain a deep, dark secret,” said a senior government official. “Well, he was hoping against hope.” Simmons’ 10-day sojourn into the cabinet raised serious concerns about the screening procedure used in cabinet appointments. The Prime Minister’s Office usually asks the Royal Canadian Mounted Police prior to a cabinet appointment if there is any reason why a candidate should not be accepted. The
RCMP answer “yes” or “no.” But the Mounties are not informed of investigations under the Income Tax Act.“It is an imperfect system because the RCMP has not got the time to do extensive digging,” a former senior security official said last week. “And the income tax people are a power unto themselves.” Trudeau himself once gave a brief explanation of the clearance procedures. In 1978 he told the Commons that he always asks the Mounties about “sensitive” order-in-council appointments. He added that when there are no files or allegations, “usually I discuss with the person the role of the office I am going to give him and ascertain that he is going to conduct himself honorably.” For his part, Simmons insisted, “In all my adult life, I have never knowingly committed any breach of the law.” Simmons’ pleas for privacy did not satisfy his fellow Liberals or the opposition. Said Newfoundland Tory MP John Crosbie: “It is ridiculous to attempt to pretend that it is reasonable that no reason should be given.” Simmons’ baffled constituents made the most poignant plea for clarification. George Crocker, president of one of the provincial riding associations in Burin-St. George’s, said that he is convinced Simmons is an honest individual. “But if, and I say if, he is involved in tax evasion or whatever, the damage to the Liberal Party here is going to take a while to wear off,” added Crocker. “Mr. Simmons does not owe an explanation to the whole country—he was only in the cabinet 10 days. The only people he owes an explanation to are the people who elected him. He owes them a good explanation.”
Meanwhile, as Simmons dodged questions throughout the week, his colleagues depicted him as an intense, obviously ambitious politician who must be devastated by his removal from cabinet. Born in June, 1939, in Lewisporte, Nfld., Simmons was raised in a devout Salvation Army family. He was a school board superintendent when he won a provincial byelection in 1973. He ran for the provincial Liberal leadership in 1974 and 1977. In 1979 he won a federal byelection and was re-elected handily in the 1980 federal election.
In Ottawa, Simmons became known as an aggressive and partisan backbencher. According to former Newfoundland Liberal leader William Rowe, Simmons was a caucus activist who constantly pressed his Newfoundland colleague, former revenue minister William Rompkey, to do more for the province. The Prime Minister dropped the affable Rompkey from cabinet to make room for Simmons. “I would say that perhaps the most uncomfortable aspect of Bill Rompkey’s tenure was the nipping at his heels by Roger Simmons,” Rowe said. “In Roger’s own mind, there was no limit on where his ambition might take him.”
Simmons’ problems have had negative repercussions far beyond his own career. Most seriously, the incident dramatized the isolation of the Prime Minister’s Office, which appeared unwilling or unable to stem the damaging tide of speculation. No senior officials were available last week, and press aides could not even confirm if Trudeau regularly asks for security checks. To add to the Liberals’ problems, Newfoundland’s traditional cabinet seat is now vacant— and there are effectively only two other MPs to whom Trudeau can turn in the five-member caucus. Trudeau is unlikely to return Rompkey to cabinet, and David Rooney pleaded guilty to defrauding the federal government in 1981. The two remaining Liberal MPs are George Baker, a self-described political maverick, and 28-year-old Brian Tobin, an inexperienced back-bencher. There is speculation that Trudeau may turn to Newfoundland Senator Philip Derek Lewis, a lawyer and former party fund raiser.
While Simmons maintained his silence, political observers continued to speculate on the character of a littleknown MP suddenly thrown into the limelight. Saskatchewan Tory MP Ray Hnatyshyn recalled that Simmons was part of a parliamentary committee that visited England last January. In a frolicsome mood, Simmons leaped over a barricade in front of the British Parliament, caught his overcoat on the barrier and fell awkwardly to the ground. That impulse landed him in hospital with a broken arm and a severely dislocated shoulder. Said Hnatyshyn: “It has not been a good year for Roger Simmons.”
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