Hatfield’s day in court

Chris Wood February 11 1985

Hatfield’s day in court

Chris Wood February 11 1985

Hatfield’s day in court

Chris Wood

Dozens of reporters, 15 lawyers and more than 100 curious New Brunswickers packed a Fredericton courtroom last week as Conservative Premier Richard Hatfield went on trial, charged with marijuana possession. Then, after listening for two days to the prosecution’s case, chief provincial court Judge Andrew Harrigan, ironically a Hatfield appointee, declared that there was insufficient evidence to support the charge and found Hatfield not guilty. But the verdict was quickly overshadowed by the judge’s surprising agreement with a suggestion made by Hatfield’s lawyer that Saint John television reporter Pat Ryan might have deliberately planted marijuana in the premier’s luggage during Queen Elizabeth Il’s visit to New Brunswick last fall. With that, federal Solicitor General Elmer MacKay announced that the RCMP would conduct an internal review on the handling of the Hatfield case.

For his part, Ryan—who immediately became the object of an RCMP investigation-declared in an interview with the ATV television network, his employer, that he had not been near Fredericton airport on Sept. 25, when police there discovered just over an ounce of marijuana in a side pocket of Hatfield’s suit-

case. Ryan, an ATV reporter, said that he learned of the drug seizure soon after it occurred as the result of an anonymous telephone message from a female caller. He then telephoned a local RCMP official, who, Ryan claimed, told him, “There’s something to it.”

Ryan pursued the story. In Ottawa MacKay’s office admitted last week that Ryan met with the solicitor general at Halifax airport on Oct. 3—just eight days after the drug seizure. A spokesman for MacKay said that at the meeting the solicitor general made no comment on the case other than to tell Ryan that “there would be due process of law.” A summons charging Hatfield was finally drawn up in Ottawa—rather than by justice officials in Fredericton —only after the Fredericton Gleaner reported on Oct. 20 that a provincial politician was under investigation for drug possession. In the Commons, Liberal justice critic John Nunziata last week called for a public inquiry to determine where there had been “political interference” in the case. “The whole matter,” noted Nunziata, “leaves a sour taste.” For his part, Justice Minister John Crosbie told reporters that he found it “unusual” that Harrigan, on the basis of no evidence, speculated “as to whether somebody possibly planted something.” Crosbie, who admitted that

he knew Hatfield was being investigated before charges were laid, said that a final decision on whether to appeal would not be made for several weeks. But, added Crosbie, “I’m not expecting that there’ll be an appeal.”

During Hatfield’s trial Crown prosecutor David Hughes argued that Hatfield must have known that the marijuana was in his suitcase when he handed it to an airport manager for safekeeping. According to witnesses for the Crown, the 53-year-old premier

chain smoked and perspired heavily in his air-conditioned limousine that day and repeatedly asked his RCMP driver about the whereabouts of his suitcase. But a thumbprint found on the plastic bag containing the marijuana matched Hatfield’s on eight points—two fewer than are usually required for a positive identification. Moreover, the defence stressed that the suitcase was left unattended and unlocked in various places on the day in question. But Hughes rejected the contention that airport officials’ handling of the suitcase could have provided an opportunity for someone to have planted the marijuana.

Hatfield’s defence lawyer, Donald Gillis, first raised the possibility that the marijuana was actually planted by Ryan. Noting the intense media interest in the case, Gillis said that an overzealous reporter could have placed the marijuana in the premier’s suitcase in order to create a sensational news story, and an exclusive report for himself. Added Gillis: “It would seem to me [the reporter] is perhaps Pat Ryan.” Gillis asked each of the 18 Crown witnesses —including 16 Mounties—whether any

of them had discussed the seizure with Ryan. They all denied that they had. Asked Judge Harrigan: “How did Ryan know what he knew?”

The premier’s trial on drug charges came at a time when many New Brunswickers are concerned over the widespread use of illegal drugs in the province. Shortly before Hatfield led the New Brunswick Tories to their fourth straight provincial election victory in 1982, his government received—but has never released—a report prepared for

the New Brunswick attorney general that found “a glaring lack of drug enforcement” in the province, which it attributed to a lack of resources and poor co-ordination among police forces. After the author of the report, Saint John Crown prosecutor William McCarroll, discussed his findings in several interviews with journalists, he was called in by Gordon Gregory, the deputy minister of justice in the Hatfield government, and told not to make any further statements on the report.

Hatfield’s long ordeal came at a time when his government is increasingly under fire for its proposals to extend language rights to the province’s 250,000 francophones. Following his acquittal the Saint John Telegraph-Journal observed in an editorial that the premier appeared to have “used up

another of his nine political lives.” Added Fredericton historian Arthur Doyle, the author of several books on New Brunswick politics: “He’s down to only one life left. He can’t afford a single serious mistake.”

The reaction of loyalists in the premier’s own riding of Carleton Centre, which he won with a modest 290-vote majority in 1982, to Hatfield’s acquittal was summed up by Hartland bartender Dale Orser, who asked, “Did you ever doubt it?” But more skeptical New Brunswickers were inclined to agree with Perth-Andover engineer Gary Hatchard that the verdict “was ridiculous. It makes the justice system a laughingstock.” Although Hatfield has a commanding 20-seat majority in the province’s 58-seat legislature— and a mandate that does not expire until October, 1987—he will have to move carefully to restore his lustre over the next 20 months. There were indications that the verdict has failed to dampen growing restlessness within the premier’s own caucus. “There are some s very deep concerns in £ caucus, and the leader8 ship tops the list,” said a I Tory back-bencher.

Hatfield’s first public function following the trial came this week when he was scheduled to play host to the Council of Maritime Premiers in Saint John. As well, he faces a crowded agenda of unresolved political issues that were largely ignored during the three-month legal process surrounding the marijuana charge. Among them: a throne speech for the legislature session expected to begin in mid-March and the $150million provincial deficit that rose by 50 per cent over the past nine months.

After the verdict Hatfield issued a terse statement, saying that he was “pleased” by the outcome. But it was a measure of the premier’s growing political isolation that several provincial cabinet ministers stayed away from their leader’s victory celebration in Fredericton, even I though they were attendit ing an unrelated function £ in the same hotel.