More ado about Oda

Andrew Coyne responds to Colby Cosh's defence of Bev Oda

Colleague Cosh has written perhaps the best defense possible of Bev Oda’s actions in the “Oda ado” (history’s first palindromic scandal?). He acquits her, by my estimate, of two-and-a-half of the three charges against her:

– that she lied to Parliament, when she said the decision to defund Kairos was CIDA’s, or at least on CIDA’s advice, rather than, as we later learned, in contradiction of it;

– that she altered the document in which CIDA officials recommended continuing funding to make it appear as if they had recommended it be discontinued — or rather, since she now admits to having altered it, that such alteration of a signed legal document was improper at best, a forgery at worst;

– and that she lied to the Commons foreign affairs committee when she claimed she did not alter it, or know who did.

Some thoughts on his thoughts, taking the charges in reverse order.

1. Did she mislead the foreign affairs committee? Yes, of course she did: at least, if you think she’s telling the truth now. Tory members of the committee are attempting to maintain that although the minister told the commitee she did not alter the document, this was not inconsistent with her later statement that she directed that it be altered. Not even Colby is buying that. It is simply nonsense to pretend that, when she told them she did not alter the document, they should have understood her to mean she did tell someone else to do it — or that when she said she did not know who did it, that should have been understood to mean that she told someone to do it, but does not know who actually carried out her order. (Colby says he does not find it remarkable “at all” that Oda would be unable to say who wrote the “not.” That’s not the point. The point is not whether she was lying in suggesting she did not know who it was; the point is what her listeners would reasonably read into that statement, in the context in which it was made.) Any reasonable person, hearing her testimony, would have understood her to mean she had nothing to do with it, period.

2. Is the document a forgery? Not exactly. Or not as we usually understand it. A forgery is usually intended to look like what it is not, to pass one thing off as another. Had the “not” been inserted in such a way as to conceal the addition, that is in the same typescript as the original, that would be a forgery: the amended document passing as the original, and the signatures affixed conveying a very different meaning than had been intended by those who put them there. But there is no way that anyone looking at that hand-scrawled addition would think it was part of the original document, and no way that any would-be forger could imagine they would.

Still: the document must have been altered for some reason. Colby finds it “at least possible” that this reason was perfectly innocent: that Oda’s signature was to the amended document, the other signatures were to the unamended document, and everyone should just be able to tell what each signature meant, at the time it was affixed. Possible, maybe. But I do not find it plausible.

Oda’s explanation, that she ordered the insertion of the word “not” in the document in order that she could then reject its recommendation by signing it, makes no earthly sense. If she had wanted to reject the recommendation, all she had to do was refuse to sign it. The fact that the document does bear her signature suggests she signed it before the document was altered: that is, that she initially accepted the recommendation, approved the funding, then changed her mind — or had it changed for her.

But even then: why add the ‘not’? No, it was not a conventional forgery – but whoever did id might still have had deception in mind: namely, to suggest that not only was the minister okay with the document as amended, but so were the bureaucrats. The document, in this scenario, would have been altered not after they had signed it, but before, ie with their approval. Perhaps the word “not” was inadvertently left out, and the handwritten addition was meant to correct it. Oops. In other words, we would be led to understand, the bureaucrats really had meant to recommend eliminating Kairos’s funding, as the minister’s public statements had suggested, not continuing it. The alteration was meant not to twist their views into conformity with the minister’s, but to make the document conform to theirs.

Except that’s not true. The document, those same bureaucrats have testified, was altered after their signed, not before. If the point of the alteration was to suggest the bureaucrats had knowingly signed off on the document as amended, it was as much a forgery as if the alternation had been concealed from us altogether.

Perhaps you think that’s a stretch. But supposing I’m right, and the minister was prevailed upon to revoke her earlier decision, and discontinue funding. The story the government wants told at the time is that “it was CIDA’s decision.” But you’ve got a document on your hands with her signature on it, along with those of the CIDA officials, urging continued funding. Sooner or later that document is going to come to light, exposing the government’s story as a lie. Destroying the document is out of the question, as is out-and-out forgery: that way prison lies. But marking up the document in this way does just enough to muddy the waters, and make it hard to pin down just who signed what when.

And even if there were no such fraudulent intent: it’s a hell of a way to carry on. You simply don’t alter signed documents in this way. Or if you do, you have the parties initial the changes, to show they approved of them. Colby sets great stock in the public testimony of the CIDA president, at the same foreign affairs committee hearing as her boss, that the alteration of the document after she had signed it, without her initials, was “normal.” No other civil servant that I am aware of, past or present, has offered the same view: that it is “normal” for a minister to reject a recommendation by adding a “not” to it. Or perhaps she meant it was “normal” for this minister. Very well: if the minister has any other documents she has altered in this way, let’s see them.

3. Did the minister misrepresent her bureaucrats’ advice prior to this, in statements in Parliament? Yes. And not only her. For months after the November 2009 decision to eliminate Kairos’s funding, every statement out of the Harper government — save one, the Jason Kenney indiscretion — carried the same clear, consistent message: that the decision was CIDA’s. Here are three commonly cited examples:

Jean-Luc Benoit, the minister’s spokesman, Dec 3, 2009: “After completing due diligence, it was detemined that the organization’s project does not meet CIDA’s current priorities.”

Jim Abbott, the minister’s Parliamentary Secretary, in the Commons, March 12, 2010: “CIDA thoroughly analyzed Kairos’s program proposal, and determined, with regreat, that it did not meet the agency’s current priorities.” (Abbott has since apologized to the House for this statement, conceding it was false but insisting he did not intend to mislead.)

Oda herself, in answer to an order paper question, April 23, 2010: “The CIDA decision not to continue funding Kairos was based on the overall assessment of the proposal, not on any single criterion.”

Now, it’s true, as Colby says, that she “didn’t come right out and say that CIDA staff had no problem with Kairos’s application.” And it’s true, as Colby says, in a “narrow technical sense,” that “a minister’s final word becomes a ‘CIDA decision’ as soon as it is made.” It would be one thing, as Colby says, if “this slippery answer” had been given in response to a direct question, say, did you overrule your officials, in which  casse “she would certainly be guilty of deceit.” But as it was “I cannot feel that it is a clear-cut case of contempt of Parliament” — even if this seems a “crabbed, narrowly technical defence.” One senses a certain embarrassment by now at the many layers of qualification and apology that were necessary to get this far.

Let’s clear away the clutter. It is certainly possible, with a thesaurus, a slide rule, and a cryptographer, to find a set of facts with which the minister’s statement was in conformity. But the sense that any reasonable listener would take away from the words “CIDA’s decision” was that it was CIDA’s decision, especially in the context of everything else the government had been saying about it.  Indeed, that was the sense that her listeners took away from it: that’s why the Embassy magazine story later that year, again quoting Colby, “that the Kairos funding decision was taken against agency advice,” landed with such force. Else what was there to report?

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