The Senate’s ethics watchdog has suspended a two-year investigation into allegations of workplace harassment by former Ontario Conservative Senator Don Meredith pending the results of a probe by another authority.
On Dec. 1, a notice on the Senate Ethics Office’s website announced that the inquiry “concerning former Senator Don Meredith, regarding allegations raised in a workplace assessment report” was suspended by then-interim watchdog Pierre Legault, “pending the outcome of an investigation into this same matter by another authority.”
The statement went on to say that the Ethics and Conflict of Interest Code for Senators allows the Upper Chamber’s ethics officer to put an investigation on hold “if it is under investigation by another authority, and that authority requests that the inquiry be suspended.”
In this case, the watchdog stated “it is in the public interest to comply with this request in order to avoid interfering with the other authority’s ongoing investigation,” according to the Dec. 1 notice.
Mr. Meredith resigned from the Upper Chamber in May, prior to a Senate vote on whether to expel him for having had a sexual relationship with a teenager. He sat as an Independent Senator after he was kicked out of the Conservative caucus. The Senate Ethics Committee had recommended he be expelled.
The Senate ethics officer at the time, Lyse Ricard, suspended her investigation into that matter from Oct. 1, 2015, until February 2016 under the same provision while the Ottawa police conducted its own inquiry, which did not result in the recommendation of criminal charges.
In response to a question about which other authorities can request that the watchdog suspend its own inquiry, the Senate ethics watchdog’s office said in an email that the term “could apply to any bodies statutorily or legally constituted that conduct investigations.”
The Ottawa Police Service would not confirm whether it is investigating Mr. Meredith, as a media spokesperson said the police department doesn’t confirm an “open investigation into a named person or business unless charges have been laid.”
Mr. Meredith’s lawyer, Bill Trudell, did not respond to messages left by The Hill Times as of deadline.
Mr. Meredith, 53, was named to the Senate in 2010 by then Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper. He sat as a Conservative until he left the caucus after news of his sexual relationship with the teenager was first reported by The Toronto Star in 2015.
The inquiry into allegations of workplace sexual harassment, harassment, and abuse of authority against Mr. Meredith began in July 2015, based on issues raised in a workplace assessment report commissioned by the steering committee of the Senate Internal Economy, Budgets, and Administration Committee.
An April Huffington Post Canada report detailed former staffers’ claims that Mr. Meredith’s behaviour ranged from bullying his aides to groping female employees.
After that report, Mr. Trudell said the Senator wouldn’t be responding to the reported allegations.
“He co-operated long ago with the Senate investigation into these allegations,” said Mr. Meredith’s lawyer, suggesting the report was politically motivated.
In a June 21 report, the Ethics and Conflict of Interest for Senators Committee said that despite Mr. Meredith no longer being a Senator, the investigation into his alleged workplace harassment should “be fully investigated for the fairness of the employees involved and former Senator Meredith,” though the Senate could no longer impose any sanctions against the ex-Senator.
The committee said that a full investigation and report from the ethics officer “could provide guidance respecting the interpretation and application of the general rules of conduct to cases of workplace abuse of authority and harassment, especially in identifying when workplace misbehaviour becomes conduct unbecoming Senator” under the Chamber’s ethics code.
Mr. Meredith’s lawyer, speaking in a personal capacity and not for his client, said the Senate should have scrapped the probe after he resigned. “He’s gone. He resigned. He did the right thing in the circumstances,” he said, noting that if the Senate wanted to make institutional changes, it should do so without tying them back to Mr. Meredith.
The Senate ethics officer who was initially investigating Mr. Meredith, Ms. Ricard, resigned last summer for family reasons. Mr. Legault had been serving as the interim ethics officer since July, and was approved by the Senate Dec. 13 to continue in the job permanently, effective Jan. 10, 2018.
While appearing before the Senate for his nomination hearing on Dec. 11, Mr. Legault faced questions about the status of the investigation into Mr. Meredith.
“In light of the virtually global phenomenon of allegations surfacing in every sector in recent months, how can you assure the alleged victims that there will be a report at some point so they can have closure and turn the page on a dark chapter in their lives?” Independent Senator Josée Verner (Montarville, Que.) asked Mr. Legault.
Since the Senate Ethics Committee “called for the investigation to continue despite the fact that Mr. Meredith is no longer a Senator” that work will be done, Mr. Legault said. “A report will be produced, but the code prevents me from sharing any more information or details.”
In response to a question from Independent Senator Marilou McPhedran (Manitoba) about the status of his investigation, Mr. Legault further cited confidentiality requirements, saying, “I cannot specifically tell you where I’m at in the conduct of an inquiry; but if and when I’m at liberty of making information public, it will be made public in accordance with the terms of the code.”
There are a number of factors to be considered when looking at the time it takes to complete an inquiry, Mr. Legault told Senators, including availability of witnesses, physical evidence, and allowing the Senator involved to have a fair opportunity to address claims.
“There is nothing that I would like better than to conduct an inquiry extremely rapidly, to be done with it, and move on to something else,” he said. “I believe that conducting an inquiry and cutting corners or proceeding in all haste simply to get a result would not serve the interests of the Senate well.”
The Hill Times