Premier Brian Pallister ordered his senior political staff to hire a private investigator to dig up dirt on NDP Leader Wab Kinew in the prelude to the 2019 election, a violation of strict guidelines preventing partisan activities from intruding on the business of government.
Although the Winnipeg private investigator was ultimately paid with party funds, multiple sources within the Pallister government confirmed oversight for the initiative was provided by some of the most senior staff in executive council, the office funded by taxpayers to provide communications, policy, legislative and other political support directly to the premier.
The sources, who have asked not to be named out of fear of reprisal, described relentless demands by Pallister to have senior staff find new dirt for a smear campaign against Kinew.
"He was completely obsessed with bringing down Kinew," one source said. "He made it clear to all of us that we were going to keep at this until we found something."
Executive council staff are not part of the regular civil service and are partisan by nature. However, they are still on the government's payroll and there are strict guidelines to keep party or electoral business away from day-to-day work in the offices of the Manitoba legislature.
"He was completely obsessed with bringing down Kinew. He made it clear to all of us that we were going to keep at this until we found something." – Source
Political scientist Paul Thomas, an expert on parliamentary procedure and ethics, said politicians and their parties have always devoted resources to digging up dirt on each other. While it can be difficult to find the line between government and partisan business, the design and execution of an attack campaign on a political opponent is an inappropriate matter to be considered in the halls of government, he added.
"You shouldn't have people walking into the premier's office to provide updates from an investigator on how the investigation into Wab Kinew is going," said Thomas. "This is taking partisan activity to an extreme. It's definitely well beyond what we would consider to be responsible behaviour on the part of political leaders in that kind of environment."
Pallister refused repeated requests for an interview. A statement from the premier's office neither confirmed nor denied the hiring of a private investigator, but did acknowledge that partisan activities, such as those described by the sources, are inappropriate in executive council.
"Overtly partisan activities are the purview of partisan entities, not executive council," the statement read. "The executive council senior staff who would have direct involvement in the alleged matters are no longer employed by this government."
In an interview, Kinew said he is alarmed at the lengths to which Pallister has gone to dig up dirt, but not surprised.
"Using a private investigator is a little bit outside normal practice for Canadian politicians," he said. "The Tories are clearly less interested in debating the real issues and more interested in the politics of personal destruction."
The sources' revelation emerged in the wake of news earlier this month that a public interest group hired a PI to tail a Manitoba chief justice while he is presiding over a case before the courts.
The sources confirmed Pallister possesses a copy of Kinew's 2017 autobiography, The Reason You Walk, which he often references or pulls out during senior staff meetings. They said the book is tabbed and marked up with dozens of notations highlighting details the premier believed would lead them to embarrassing or career-ending revelations.
"He was totally fixated on digging up dirt about Kinew," one source said. "He was constantly pulling out the book and telling people to 'look at page whatever, there has to be more on that.' He totally hounded us to keep at it."
As recently as May, Pallister brandished the book in a legislative committee hearing in an attack on Kinew. He later called Kinew "an asshole" at the same hearing, but later apologized.
Kinew has been dogged by critics for his past. A former rap musician, he has been condemned for profane, racist and misogynistic song lyrics he penned and performed.
During a period in which he admits to being an alcoholic, Kinew had had several run-ins with police, including incidents in which he assaulted a cab driver and faced criminal charges relating to allegations he physically assaulted a former girlfriend. The charges were eventually stayed.
The plan to hire a private investigator was hatched a year before the snap election call in 2019.
Sources said that in early 2018, Phil Houde, Pallister's former chief of staff, was ordered to hire an investigator using party money. The investigator did not do any surveillance; the task was largely to re-examine court documents and possibly conduct interviews.
The plan was well known to most senior staff, including advisers such as David McLaughlin, a two-time campaign manager for the PC party who was serving at that time as a paid consultant on Pallister's climate-change policies.
"He was totally fixated on digging up dirt about Kinew. He was constantly pulling out the book and telling people to 'look at page whatever, there has to be more on that.' He totally hounded us to keep at it." – Source
The sources said McLaughlin, who has since been appointed clerk of the executive council, was a key figure in supporting the premier's obsession with Kinew.
It was during planning for the 2019 election that McLaughlin formed a clandestine group of party operatives — some of them high-ranking staff in executive council — to amass compromising information on Kinew for an attack website. This group also created numerous "burner accounts" to post anti-Wab information on social media platforms.
Houde and McLaughlin declined requests for an interview.
The PC party did acknowledge digging into Kinew's background but would not confirm that it had paid for a private investigator.
"One of the most important duties of any political party in our democratic system is to present clear and factual information to the public so that they can make fully informed decisions." – PC party statement
However, in an emailed statement, the party reiterated its concerns that some of the most serious incidents from Kinew's past were not included in his autobiography. These events, the party said, became relevant as soon as Kinew assumed leadership of the NDP and began seeking the premiership.
"One of the most important duties of any political party in our democratic system is to present clear and factual information to the public so that they can make fully informed decisions," the party said in its statement. "Part of that duty includes holding other parties and their leaders accountable for past actions and statements."
The party statement also accused NDP staff of regularly conducting surveillance of a former (Tory) opposition leader, although officials refused to identify the individual. The NDP denied it had ever used an investigator or had anyone connected to the party surveil a Tory leader.
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.