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Newfoundland Liquor Corp.’s cannabis consultant part of response to CEO’s firing

Former Newfoundland and Labrador Liquor Corp. (NLC) president and CEO Steve Winter.
Former Newfoundland and Labrador Liquor Corp. (NLC) president and CEO Steve Winter. - The Telegram

Work at time of Steve Winter’s dismissal was pro bono, spokesman says

On Saturday, Jan. 6, the now-former Newfoundland and Labrador Liquor Corp. (NLC) president and CEO Steve Winter was scheduled to meet NLC vice-president of human resources Kevin Kelly to go clear out personal items from what was once his office.

He had been terminated without cause by cabinet on Friday, Jan. 5, with a news release announcing his departure that same day.

On the Saturday evening, according to communications obtained by The Telegram through an access to information request, NLC board chair Wayne Myles asked both Finance Minister Tom Osborne and Greg Mercer if it was accurate for him to say Winter resigned to begin his retirement. “The media is already putting out a different spin,” he stated in an email.

Myles mentioned he had Kevin Casey working on an internal statement.

N.L. Liquor Corp. boss was fired: Osborne

The NLC was recently questioned about employing Casey as a consultant, at a reported rate of $9,000 a month for 14 hours of work per week. That breaks down to about $160 an hour, the CBC reported.

His term contract began Dec. 1 and reportedly involved advising the corporation as it moves toward handling the legal marijuana trade in the province.

But Casey was also tapped by Myles after Winter’s firing. “I have Kevin Casey working on a draft internal communication, but you know it will get out into the public,” the chair wrote.

The Telegram contacted Casey for clarification on his work for the corporation. He declined comment, saying he had to direct inquiries to NLC communications.

NLC spokesman Greg Gill clarified that he was responsible for corporate communications and would normally have handled the statement, but happened to be out of town. He said his understanding was Myles had approached Casey based on experience with the corporation and credentials, with Casey offering his assistance with the statement pro bono.

The Telegram sought an interview with Myles, who did respond in an email Monday night, after print deadline, noting he is currently outside of the province on a family matter. Myles confirmed Casey did provide assistance to him "on a gratuitous basis," given his expertise in communications, while Gill was out of the province.
He added any comment in response to questions on Winter's departure would be inappropriate.

Opportunity in change

The internal memo on Winter’s departure was issued on Sunday, Jan. 7 — two days after the news release had gone out from the Department of Finance.

Headlined “With Change Comes Opportunity,” it thanked Winter and highlighted the experience of Sharon Sparkes, the new interim president and CEO.

“Both the NLC and the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador are confident that we have talented teams in place and see enormous opportunities on which NLC can capitalize,” it went on to say, credited to Myles. “In just six short months, cannabis will be legalized in Canada and the NLC has been tasked with implementing the distribution, retail and commercial aspects within Newfoundland and Labrador. This will be a whole new industry and direction for the NLC, which I am very confident that we have the expertise and drive to be very successful in as well.”

Winter was replaced on an interim basis by Sparkes, who had previously been the NLC’s chief financial officer, but had been dismissed by Winter in 2017 — something unmentioned in notices on her new appointment.

The board has distanced itself to some extent from that decision. In an email exchange, Myles told Osborne the board “did not approve or disapprove of Mr. Winter’s decision to terminate Ms. Sparkes,” adding it was within the authority of the CEO to do so.

Winter has been approached by The Telegram but has declined comment on his departure from the NLC and earlier decisions.

The last contract on file with the NLC states he is barred from communicating any “confidential information” without prior written consent, even subsequent to his employment. “Confidential information shall include all information the employee receives, discovers, develops or has access to involving any operations or decisions of the corporation,” it states.

Report private and confidential

After Steve Winter’s dismissal, a CBC news report on Jan. 11 referenced an investigation by the Office of the Citizens’ Representative involving a complaint of nepotism in contracting at the NLC. The investigation, according to CBC reporter Fred Hutton, found Winter did nothing wrong, but also prompted a consideration of policy relevant to government agencies, boards and commissions.

The Telegram was unable to obtain a copy of the report from the investigation through the Office of the Citizens’ Representative or the Department of Finance. A response to an access to information request stated its disclosure would amount to unreasonable invasion of personal privacy.

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