Bern Coffey, the clerk of the executive council, said he has put measures in place to help counteract the massive potential for conflict of interest, but Opposition Leader Paul Davis says the situation is a huge scandal and deeply wrong.
“I was shocked by it,” Davis said.
“I don’t know how you accurately describe the significance of that position. That’s the most senior bureaucrat in all of government.”
The clerk of the executive council is essentially the premier’s top lieutenant. In many ways, he’s more powerful than cabinet ministers. He holds custody of cabinet records, sits in on cabinet meetings and offers advice.
Coffey also heads up the Muskrat Falls oversight committee that’s charged with scrutinizing the $11-billion hydroelectric megaproject.
And in his spare time he also represents a client who is suing Nalcor, although he assured The Telegram that his client was involved in a different part of Nalcor, unrelated to the Muskrat Falls project.
Coffey said when he took on the job of clerk last September he told Premier Dwight Ball that he would need to continue working with the clients in his law practice.
“The agreement was, in other matters, that I would not take on any new clients in any case, and I have not,” he said.
“It’s not as easy for an individual to move on from A to B, because there’s money involved in this kind of stuff. It costs money to hire a new lawyer to do something, subsequently.”
The wrongful dismissal lawsuit involves a geoscientist named Adel Ebrahim; the case was first reported on by the business news website AllNewfoundlandLabrador.com.
Over the years, Coffey has been linked to the Liberal party, and in 2011 he briefly pursued the leadership of the party.
Coffey said he has erected “Chinese walls” within government to make sure he doesn’t get included in discussions related to his law clients, which could put him in a conflict of interest.
“Chinese walls exist for this very reason, where there is a conflict of interest,” he said.
“As long as everyone knows that this is the case, then that’s it.”
But Davis said that’s simply not good enough.
Coffey stands to personally profit from the wrongful dismissal case if he wins it. He could wind up sitting across a table as a lawyer negotiating a legal settlement, while at the same time he’s also effectively the Nalcor employees’ boss.
“Imagine him in court cross-examining public servants on this whole issue,” Davis said.
“It’s not inconceivable that some of the senior executives in Natural Resources might be involved in all of this. … How do you publicly disagree with the clerk? How do you do that in a court somewhere?”
It isn’t just this one case. Coffey said he still has a few clients, including some work for the Law Society on disciplinary matters.
Coffey also specifically mentioned that in the past he’s worked for the Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association, so some stuff relating to them doesn’t come across his desk.
Davis said all that beggars belief; typically, a clerk of the executive council is involved in just about everything the government does, across every department.
What’s equally concerning, Davis said, is the fact that this was kept quiet until Coffey filed the lawsuit.
“This is some kind of secret special arrangement that nobody knew anything about, that the clerk has said he made with government. So what other arrangements are there that we don’t know about?” he said.
“And how can the premier allow this to happen?
In an emailed statement, Ball said he has total confidence in Coffey.
“Any legal services he presently provides are done within his personal time, and I am confident that Mr. Coffey will continue to work diligently on behalf of the people of this province,” Ball stated.
“In this specific case, the statement of claim indicates that the plaintiff is a former employee who worked as a geoscientist in Nalcor’s oil and gas division. The Muskrat Falls Oversight Committee, which Bernard Coffey chairs, has nothing to do with Nalcor’s oil and gas business.”