Imagine — just imagine — that you owned a little cabin on a pond. A place with no electrical service, with no road in at all. The fishing is good, there is no one else nearby, and in winter, you could trundle in there on the snowmobile.
Come spring, maybe it would be nice to canoe out to the place — so it would probably be handy to build yourself a little wharf. Hold on, though: if you want to build a wharf, there’s a process to go through. You need to apply for permission from the provincial Department of Environment, register your plans, make them public and pay any required fees.
It’s easily dozens of pages of documentation, all of it ending up in the hands of the provincial government, which then decides whether you can have permission.
No matter. Maybe just build an ATV trail into your little piece of Paradise — cut some trees, widen an old walking trail …
Hang on again. There’s environmental protection legislation you’d better be aware of. You’ve got to register your proposed route, make sure that any watercourses you cross will be well protected and indicate how you’ll avoid bogs and sensitive areas.
The full registration process is a detailed one and, truth be told, can take up hundreds of pages of documentation back and forth, including your original plan, responses, your replies about addressing specific concerns — and all of that documentation will be filed with the province.
Now, imagine that the same provincial government had decided to go with a particular St. John’s law firm to handle a multi-million-dollar contract — potentially hundreds of millions of dollars — as part of a billion-dollar lawsuit against the tobacco industry.
It’s a big suit, one that the province has been working on for years, and one where the provincial government has gone so far as to pass provincial legislation enabling the suit to go forward with as much chance of success as was humanly possible. Imagine the time and paperwork involved with choosing that law firm: if a lowly private wharf is tens of pages of documents and letters, a billion-dollar lawsuit’s choice of lawyers is bound to be a pretty massive pile of paperwork.
Except, strangely, it isn’t.
In fact, there’s not a scrap of paper. Not a squib. Not a letter nor an email nor a Post-it note.
Using access to information legislation, The Telegram asked for documents related to the selection of the firm that was picked. (The firm in question? A law firm co-founded by Danny Williams, now named Roebothan McKay and Marshall.) The answer was startling: no records exist. Nothing. Bupkis.
Monday, things got even stranger. For months now, the Department of Justice has been tight-lipped about how the contract was awarded, refusing even to say when it was awarded.
There was no tender call, no request for expressions of interest. Even the province’s cabinet didn’t choose. In the limited detail the province did provide, Justice officials said “it is in the purview of the attorney general to appoint legal counsel.”
That echoes the province’s original announcement of the appointment of the firm, which was tagged onto the end of a news release announcing that the province was moving ahead with the court action.
The release said: “The provincial government has retained the services of local law firm Roebothan McKay Marshall, who will be provided with foreign legal advice from Humphrey, Farrington and McClain of Independence, Missouri, experts in tobacco litigation.”
Asked directly how the province chose the firm, a Justice official responded, “The province felt Roebothan McKay Marshall was the local law firm that best met the requirements for this work.”
Strangely, the government is now claiming that the Missouri firm made the choice — apparently, it’s all the Liberals fault, because the Liberals picked the Missouri firm years ago.
But that would only be the case if the province was still using the same contract as the Liberals had signed: I asked about that contract in February, saying, “Is the Missouri firm still operating under its original contract with government?”
The response? “No. The province has a new contract with the law firms.” That contract must not be on paper, though — because there’s nothing on paper. Remember?
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.