Rights and Democracy: The crisis before the crisis

The National Post‘s Graeme Hamilton has a fascinating story this morning based on access-to-information requests he filed more than a year and a half ago. The documents he received fill in much of the missing story on Rights and Democracy, the Montreal-based arm’s-length agency the Harper government’s board appointees pretty much ran into the ground in 2009 and 2010.

For most outsiders, the story began in January 2010, when R&D’s president Rémy Beauregard died of a heart attack. Very nearly the entire staff signed a letter calling for the resignation of the board chairman, Aurel Braun, and some of his sidekicks. Braun and his claque levelled a succession of very serious allegations about the way Beauregard ran R&D. They spent a lot of you tax money to pay auditors and private investigators to root around in R&D’s books. When the audit finally came out, it showed Beauregard had been acting much more like the solution to R&D’s ills than its cause.

But the crisis at R&D began many months before Beauregard’s accidental death. The question has always been how much the government knew. The answer, as it turns out, is that they pretty much knew everything.

The central character in Graeme’s account is Donica Pottie, a career diplomat who became the government’s representative on the R&D board in January 2009, just before Braun’s appointment. Pottie resigned from the board in September of 2009 and has never publicly discussed her role at R&D since. I once called her for an interview. She didn’t respond. I don’t blame her; public servants rarely take reporters’ questions about their former responsibilities. I do wish the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee had called her to testify, but that’s water under the bridge.

Anyway, here she is in Graeme’s ATIP file, and she comes off as someone who was increasingly alarmed by what she saw.

She joins R&D in January 2009. Braun joins in March. Already by April, she’s written an email to her colleagues flagging “a major ambiguity” about the role of the board chairman in relation to that of the president “that’s causing problems.” By May Treasury Board is proposing training for the new board members on the proper execution of their role. That same month, Pottie’s email trail shows she was informing her ADM at DFAIT of “a major issue.” She called the conflict between Beauregard and Braun “an ugly mess.”

The crux of that mess was a discretionary payment Beauregard had authorized to two organizations in the Middle East, the Palestinian Al Haq and the Israeli B’Tselem. Braun is no fan; Pottie pointed out that the federal government had funded Al Haq in the past, before Beauregard hired them for a specific project.

And then, suddenly, she resigned. After this, she does something that makes no sense unless you spend a bit of time covering the behaviour of this government: she co-operates in the process of coming up with something that can be given to people who want a reason for her resignation that is not, in fact, an explanation for her resignation. “We cannot say that I resigned because I was too busy, as that wasn’t the case,” she writes. Just give the date for her resignation and note that there is nothing in law requiring a DFAIT representative on the board. “It’s not a very good answer, but it is something.”

There is more in Graeme’s story, including interaction between Pottie and a member of former Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon’s political staff, who argued that Cannon could not intervene in R&D’s management as strongly as… Cannon’s own predecessor  has in 2007. Which seems a hard argument to sustain.

Braun’s three-year appointment as chairman of the Rights and Democracy board comes up for renewal in March.