Editorial

Can you imagine a premier or a finance minister tabling a budget in the Manitoba Legislature — perhaps involving a major tax increase — and then refusing to speak publicly about the overall strategy and implications?

Can you imagine a premier or a finance minister tabling a budget in the Manitoba Legislature — perhaps involving a major tax increase — and then refusing to speak publicly about the overall strategy and implications?

Citizens in a democracy rightly expect responsiveness from senior elected officials and the bureaucrats who keep government running. Being available to explain why decisions are made — either to the public, or to the journalists who document government operations — is a non-negotiable tenet of democracy.

Why, then, do we allow senior officials in provincial justice departments to maintain a veil of silence about virtually everything they do?

Recently, we have seen Manitoba Justice flatly refuse to explain its role in two high-profile criminal cases.

Crown prosecutors decided not to lay charges against former City of Winnipeg CAO Phil Sheegl related to allegations he accepted kickbacks involved in the building of the Winnipeg police headquarters. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Crown prosecutors decided not to lay charges against former City of Winnipeg CAO Phil Sheegl related to allegations he accepted kickbacks involved in the building of the Winnipeg police headquarters. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

The first was the decision by Crown prosecutors not to lay charges against former City of Winnipeg CAO Phil Sheegl related to allegations he accepted kickbacks from the contractor involved in the building of the Winnipeg Police Service headquarters.

That controversial decision received renewed scrutiny when the evidence gathered by the RCMP in the criminal investigation was used in a civil proceeding that resulted in a million-dollar settlement against Mr. Sheegl.

When Manitoba Justice was asked about its decision not to prosecute, officials would only provide a vague, generalized comment that they did not think there was enough evidence to ensure a reasonable likelihood of conviction. The evidence presented at the civil proceeding suggested otherwise.

More recently, Manitoba Justice failed to secure a conviction against Winnipeg police officer Sgt. Sean Cassidy, who, while off-duty, dragged a man from his vehicle and punched him several times. The judge, in that case, acquitted the police officer and rebuked the prosecutor in the case, suggesting the Crown’s strategy at trial had completely backfired.

Once again, when asked to account for its strategy, Manitoba Justice issued a prefabricated response that did not answer key questions. That same refusal to offer an explanation was in play when, a few weeks later, Manitoba Justice announced it would not appeal the acquittal.

Citizens in this democracy deserve a more fulsome explanation about these two cases, and other cases in which the public interest is at stake. Unfortunately, Crown prosecution services in this and other provinces have leaned heavily on a tradition of not publicly discussing their decision-making. It is time for the provincial ministers of justice and attorneys general to rethink this tradition.

It’s hard to know exactly when this tradition started, but legal scholars seem to agree it evolved over time as a corollary to a general concern the attorney general and Crown prosecutors must not do or say anything publicly outside a courtroom that could affect the outcome of a proceeding. Those are real concerns; Crown officials could, were they overly talkative, disrupt a legal proceeding.

Manitoba Justice failed to secure a conviction against Winnipeg police officer Sgt. Sean Cassidy, who, while off-duty, dragged a man from his vehicle and punched him several times. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Manitoba Justice failed to secure a conviction against Winnipeg police officer Sgt. Sean Cassidy, who, while off-duty, dragged a man from his vehicle and punched him several times. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files)

However, following a decision not to charge someone or, as in the Cassidy case, when an appeal is not being sought, then senior officials from the justice department could and should explain what happened — even if such an explanation leaves the Crown vulnerable to civil suits.

Having to answer questions about not charging someone, or the failure to secure a conviction, might be awkward and stressful for Crown officials. That is not, however, a justification for failing to serve the public interest by explaining what happened.

The provincial justice departments in this country are led by ministers of the Crown, who are also elected officials fully accountable to the citizenry. These ministers should take the necessary steps to make prosecutorial decision-making more transparent and accountable. Democracy demands nothing less.