Ugly spat over cost of business travel within top ranks of CRTC

The latest on the rift between CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais and Ontario regional commissioner Raj Shoan

OTTAWA — An ugly internal spat over business trips is escalating at the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, with one senior government appointee threatening to get the Prime Minister’s Office’s involved.

It’s the latest chapter in an ongoing rift between CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais and Ontario regional commissioner Raj Shoan.

Blais recently refused to approve Shoan’s proposed travel for 2015-16, which at first detailed potential trips totalling $78,000 to cities such as Las Vegas, Amsterdam, New York City and Mont Tremblant, Que.

Shoan later reduced the amount to $48,000 “under protest,” describing it instead as a wish list of conferences and meetings from which he invited Blais to pick and choose which ones to approve.

One of the trips was to meet with officials at American networks AMC and HBO in Manhattan to discuss their digital offerings.

“I am accountable for all expenses incurred by you and I must be persuaded that they present value for money, conform to applicable government-wide policies and legislation, and respect the basic principles of probity and prudent fiscal management,” Blais wrote to Shoan on May 14.

The emails were obtained by The Canadian Press through the Access to Information Act.

Blais, who was once assistant secretary of the federal Treasury Board, also pointed out that travel to and from commission hearings and meetings is already covered by another budget.

Shoan balked, disputing the view that $12,000 was an appropriate travel budget threshold for the Ontario commissioner.

“Given that you have refused to provide me with a budget that accords with what has been provided to other commissioners and what is typical for my office in order to fulfil my duties and obligations as the Ontario commissioner, I will escalate this issue to the minister of Canadian heritage, the Prime Minister’s Office and the appropriate representative of Parliament,” Shoan wrote on May 22.

Blais shot back: “No reasonable person could interpret your statements as anything but threatening, specifically with the intent to bully me into the outcome you want…”

The exchange took place against the backdrop of a case that Shoan brought to the Federal Court of Canada. He has applied for a judicial review of a workplace harassment report issued by an independent mediator earlier this year.

Mediator Diane Laurin concluded that Shoan’s behaviour towards a CRTC employee, mostly via email, constituted harassment. In her report, Laurin described Shoan as “disrespectful and abusive of the complainant.”

Shoan disputes the finding, arguing that the entire process was improperly handled, including the selection of the conflict management and mediation firm. He also questioned whether the CRTC’s secretary general had the power to initiate an internal investigation of a political appointee.

Shoan has clashed with the chairman’s office and other senior staff, challenging them on elements of the decision-making process and their respect for the independence of the commissioners.

The CRTC is a quasi-judicial body that operates at arm’s length from the government.

“I have continuously expressed my concern that the independence of the commissioners has been undermined and that this has inhibited their ability to engage their roles and responsibilities,” Shoan wrote in a June 8 affidavit with the Federal Court.

“These concerns have yet to be acknowledged and it is the failure to address these issues that has resulted in the difficult environment at the CRTC.”

In an interview, Shoan said he didn’t want to comment on the case currently before the courts, but that the conflict over his travel budget was “symptomatic (of) the larger issues at play at the CRTC.”

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