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Conflict of interest questions unanswered

Bern Coffey checks documents prior to a tribunal hearing at the Law Society of Newfoundland and Labrador’s St. John’s office.
Bern Coffey checks documents prior to a tribunal hearing at the Law Society of Newfoundland and Labrador’s St. John’s office.

In the wake of revelations about the province’s top bureaucrat moonlighting as a private-practice lawyer, and representing a client suing Nalcor Energy, questions abound.

Answers will likely have to wait until Monday, when politicians will be back in the House of Assembly and Premier Dwight Ball will have to answer questions from the media.

Seeking specific information about what the government is doing to address the potential conflicts of interest, The Telegram sent a detailed request for information about how Bern Coffey’s potential conflicts of interest are being avoided, when it comes to the Conflict of Interest Act.

Director of communications Amy Stoodley responded with a one-line statement.

“The Department of Justice and Public Safety cannot comment on any advice provided to Government as it is solicitor-client privileged and only the client can waive this privilege,” Stoodley wrote.

The Telegram tried to clarify whom “the client” is in this situation, and if it’s the government, why can’t they waive solicitor-client privilege to answer questions?

No answer was received by deadline.

Coffey has been the clerk of the executive council since September 2016. That role makes him the top bureaucrat in the government — in many ways on par with a cabinet minister.

Coffey participates in cabinet meetings, provides advice to the premier and at the highest level manages the entire provincial government bureaucracy.

This week the public learned that Coffey has also been continuing to work as a private-practice lawyer on the side, representing some of the clients he had before taking the job as clerk of the executive council.

And earlier this month, Coffey filed a lawsuit on behalf of one client suing Nalcor Energy for wrongful dismissal.

Coffey told The Telegram that he’s erected “Chinese Walls” within government to prevent conflict of interest by making sure that issues related to his law practice don’t come across his desk at Confederation Building.

Lawyer Ches Crosbie, who is running for the Progressive Conservative party leadership, said as far as he can tell, this creates an unavoidable conflict of interest.

Nalcor employees know Coffey is hand-picked by Premier Dwight Ball, and is one of his top lieutenants, Crosbie said. And because Ball and Coffey hold enormous power over Nalcor as premier, there’s no way to avoid a conflict of interest.

“Mr. Coffey cannot take up the cause of someone suing Nalcor without creating a situation of undue influence,” Crosbie said. “Ten Chinese walls can’t change that.”

When it comes to conflict of interest, Coffey will also have to reckon with the Conflict of Interest Act, where there are about half a dozen sections that might cause problems.

For example, the law says, “A public office holder shall not engage in an activity … that places him or her in a position of conflict of interest, or is likely to do so.”

Does that mean Coffey has to step out of any cabinet meeting at which Nalcor is being discussed?

Coffey did not respond to an emailed request for comment on this story. He will be in court on Tuesday afternoon representing one of his other private-practice clients: the Law Society of Newfoundland and Labrador.

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