The leadership of the Canadian Forces and Department of National Defence have always been sensitive about media coverage of the taxpayer-funded “Party Flight.”
Readers might remember this drunken junket where VIPs invited by Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Jon Vance partied away at public expense in late 2017. The result was a 2018 sexual assault charge laid against former NHL player Dave “Tiger” Williams (dropped in early May after an apology was made to the Canadian Forces flight attendant) and endless embarrassment for the Canadian Forces.
Taxpayers laid out $337,000 for this exclusive party.
An internal military report later determined that the VIPs, some already drunk, boarded the Canadian Forces aircraft with open alcohol and their on-board antics later put the entire flight at risk.
But it was only through documents released under the Access to Information law did it become clear just how sensitive the senior department and military leadership was about journalists like myself who were digging into the behind the scenes story about the party flight.
These documents show how one of my articles resulted in 20 individuals – from Deputy Minister Jody Thomas and Gen. Jon Vance to the senior levels of the public affairs branch – becoming involved in writing a complaint letter to my boss about my reporting on this drunken junket.
The letter, signed by public affairs Brig.-Gen. Marc Theriault, claimed among other things that I erroneously reported the date that Tiger Williams was to appear in court. But like many of the statements from the military’s public affairs branch on the “party flight”, Theriault’s claim simply wasn’t true. The Ottawa Citizen had correctly reported the Williams court date since that specific date was provided to the newspaper by his lawyer. (And as often happens in the court system, Williams appearance was pushed off to another date.)
But what was more fascinating was the amount of work – and tax dollars – that went into the writing of the 277-word complaint letter that Vance’s office demanded be produced. The planning and execution was a true marvel of Canadian military ingenuity and bureaucracy.
The effort began shortly after 1 p.m. April 28, 2018 when Cmdr. Kris Phillips assigned Maj. Mark Peebles to begin writing the letter. Lt. Col. Jason Proulx, the public affairs advisor for the Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Vance also joined the effort.
A Judge Advocate General staff member was brought in and although much of the information is censored from the documents, the effort grew to include Chris Henderson, the Assistant Deputy Minister of Public Affairs and Brig. Gen. Theriault.
The letter was crafted to highlight my alleged lack of professionalism and my article which “led to an erroneous public perception of the military leadership’s handling of this matter (the Party Flight).”
By mid-afternoon that day, Philipps emailed Pebbles stating he was happy with the “tone” of the letter. At 3:50 p.m. Proulx asked for an update so he could pass the information along to Vance.
The letter was finalized and at 5:16 p.m. Henderson briefed Vance and Deputy Minister Jody Thomas on the progress, also informing then Brig. Gen. David Lowthian and Bill Matthews (then an assistant deputy minister at DND, now Deputy Minister over at Procurement Canada) and other senior bureaucrats such as JP Quinn, N Nye, G. Venner and I Neville.
Maj. Pebbles appeared to be beside himself with excitement as the letter finally came together.
“Give’er,” he wrote to Anna Nicolle, a DND official who handled social media accounts, signalling the order to publish the letter on-line.
Direction was also given to send the letter to the Editor of the Ottawa Citizen in the hopes – I was told later by DND sources – that I would be somehow reprimanded or even removed from reporting on the Party Flight.
Other social media advisors for the DND/Canadian Forces, such as Angela Kelly, became involved. Anna Nicolle eagerly came up with various recommendations to “increase the reach” of the complaint letter, including posting links on the Ottawa Citizen Twitter page and posting the letter on Facebook. She passed her comments to her Chain of Command and they were in agreement. Cory Hunter, a “strategic communications advisor” for DND was consulted.
The letter was published on the official Canadian Forces Facebook page and, while it didn’t gain a lot of attention, it didn’t take long for the on-line trolls to weigh in. One individual posted that I was a “snivelling weasel” and a “joke.”
While such insults are standard fare on social media accounts it was interesting to say the least to see that it was approved for publication on an official Government of Canada site. (the site is monitored by a team of 5-7 public servants at DND who didn’t see anything wrong with those comments).
What was more concerning, however, was that the same individual who wrote those comments had previously – while serving in the Canadian Forces – threatened to come to the Ottawa Citizen office and do me harm.
I thought I had shaken this unstable person but now he was back. But that was my problem to solve.
Inside, the senior defence leadership were high-fiving over a job well done.
Deputy Minister Jody Thomas was particularly happy with the letter and the results.
“Well done,” she wrote to Henderson, Vance and the other senior staff on the email chain.
For me, however, the publication of the complaint letter signaled that there might be more to the Party Flight story. I couldn’t figure out, for instance, why the Canadian Forces would falsely claim my reporting on the Tiger Williams court date was wrong when it obviously wasn’t. Brig.-Gen. Theriault’s letter seemed to indicate a worry inside National Defence HQ that maybe I would find out more.
So the digging continued. Eventually I compiled the true cost of the VIP flight. It wasn’t the $15,000 that Chris Henderson and his staff originally claimed. Instead, taxpayers had laid out $337,000 for this drunken junket. Questions were raised why the flight attendants had to go home early on a commercial flight when Tiger Williams continued on the morale tour and got to travel back to Canada on the RCAF VIP aircraft?
Sources told me that one of the VIPs was so drunk he urinated himself, forcing the flight attendants to have to clean up the mess. This was later confirmed in court.
There were also questions about why Deputy Minister Thomas had done nothing to rein in the out-of-control expenditure of tax dollars.
Retired military personnel continued to contact Postmedia/the Ottawa Citizen to contradict Vance’s claim that the party flight was a one-off incident. I wrote additional articles about other drunken VIP excursions coordinated by the offices of previous defence chiefs. Again, taxpayers had picked up the extensive costs on those trips as well. An email arrived with links to a video made of the festivities on the flight, showing Vance’s VIPs dancing in the aisles as the RCAF plane was airborne.
An internal military investigation as well as the flight attendant’s victim impact statement released to the court would later vindicate the accuracy of my reporting on the Party Flight.
In the end I learned a number of valuable lessons. I learned that the reaction from an organization can indicate there is more to a story. In other words, if there is smoke, there is fire. It was also interesting to see how far the Canadian Forces and the DND would go in trying to deal with a pesky journalist.
Some friends inside National Defence headquarters have warned me that such a reaction is a template for the future in how the Canadian Forces/DND will deal with journalists who are probing too deeply how tax dollars are spent.
That – in my opinion – is a template guaranteed to fail.
DND deputy minister Jody Thomas (photo courtesy Government of Canada)
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