The strange downfall of Evan Solomon

The unbelievable true story of the billionaire, the banker, the art maven and the CBC star.

Cole Burston

Cole Burston

On Nov. 7, 2012, the day after Barack Obama’s re-election, Mark Carney was a guest on CBC’s Power and Politics with Evan Solomon. “Did you watch that last night?” Solomon asked the then-governor of the Bank of Canada, referring to Obama’s victory speech. “I watched you last night, Evan. I enjoyed it very much,” Carney responded, exuding the charm that has won him comparisons to Cary Grant. The two chatted amiably about the then-looming U.S. “fiscal cliff” before Carney handed Solomon a brand new polymer $20 bill. “I don’t get to keep this, I assume,” Solomon joked. “It depends on what questions you ask,” Carney shot back in jest. “It’s called payola, Evan.” When Carney asked for the note back, Solomon feigned indignation: “I lost my $20,” he said. “A journalist never gets rich.”

Three years ago, that kind of chummy banter between Solomon and his powerful guests was one of the reasons an audience of 90,000 tuned into the CBC News Network’s daily two-hour flagship politics show. Of course, in the wake of Solomon’s abrupt firing last week—after the Toronto Star revealed the CBC host parlayed his journalistic contacts and access for his own enrichment in a side business with Toronto art collector Bruce Bailey—the exchange bristles with obvious irony. The story reported that Solomon received a 10 per cent cut for steering clients to Bailey, a deal that earned him $300,000 in commissions, which were not fully disclosed to the buyers. One of these buyers was Carney, now governor of the Bank of England; Solomon pocketed 112.5 of those $20 bills in the process. The other was Jim Balsillie, co-founder of Research In Motion (BlackBerry).

The Solomon-Bailey partnership ended this spring amid legal rancour after Solomon sent Bailey a letter in February threatening legal action if he didn’t receive more than $1 million in unpaid commissions. The matter was settled out of court in early June. A week later, the Star ran its exposé. The story was explosive, even at a time when scandals involving CBC hosts are so commonplace that transgressions can be gauged on a sliding scale: unlike Jian Ghomeshi, who is facing criminal charges, there is no suggestion Solomon did anything illegal; nor does evidence exist that Solomon’s personal relationships influenced news coverage, unlike the allegations against Amanda Lang, host of The Exchange, who remains with the network. But an email trail between Solomon and Bailey that spelled out how the arrangement would play out—and in which Carney was code-named “the Guv” and Balsillie “Anka,” due to his perceived resemblance to singer Paul Anka—clearly violated a corporate code of ethics that states employees “must not use their positions to further their personal interests.” Never mind that Solomon, who covered Senate influence-peddling on a daily basis, presented himself as a naïf in the crossfire after his firing: “I did not view the art business as a conflict with my political journalism at the CBC and never intentionally used my position at the CBC to promote the business.”

Solomon’s case illustrates the ripple effect one stupid decision can have on an ecosystem. Not only did he lose his job and take a reputational hit—he was long seen as a possible heir apparent to Peter Mansbridge at The National—but it dragged a disparate cast of characters onto a messy canvas. There’s the beleaguered public broadcasting corporation trying to rebuild shattered credibility. There’s a former high-tech billionaire steering his legacy chapter away from his failures at BlackBerry to his new Centre for International Governance Innovation. There’s the central banker who famously called Bay Street “too materialistic” now being linked to a profiteering journalist at an inopportune time; the scandal broke days before Carney called for broader sanctions for financial market abusers and declared the “age of irresponsibility” over. And there’s the social gadfly art collector thrust into the spotlight he relishes.

Connecting them all is Solomon, the 47-year-old former wunderkind, a social progressive widely regarded as a “genuinely nice guy” suddenly cast as an opportunist, one who was out of a job, his Ottawa home listed for sale, his finances exposed in Frank magazine, his colleagues and friends expressing dismay and disappointment. “It’s so uncool,” says one, offering admonishment, albeit affectionate. “Bad, bad Evan.”

(Erin Simkin)

Erin Simkin

As an ‘it boy’ in 1990s Toronto, Evan Solomon was destined to cross paths with Bruce Bailey, an art collector known for surrounding himself with the fabulous, the famous, and about-to-be-famous. The two attended the same Power Plant gallery events, and Solomon, the co-founder of Shift, a magazine that chronicled digital culture as a contemporary of Wired, was a guest at the parties the collector threw for artists on the top floor of his five-storey College Street building, which served as his gallery/pied-à-terre. “Out of James Bond,” is how one guest describes it. “High ceilings, everything Mies van der Rohe, very New York penthouse.” Bailey, a lawyer-turned-investment banker in the 1980s, turned art collector in the 1990s—just as art became an asset class—had a knack for mixing the Westons and Belinda Stronach with emerging artists he supported, plus a rotating cast of “hot young twentysomethings,” as one friend puts it. And no one fit that description better than Solomon: “Evan was one of those guys that had golden boy written all over him—handsome, clever, tall—he couldn’t not succeed,” says a friend.

Bailey was an “access broker,” someone known to support emerging artists, either bringing them to parties or buying their work. That stable includes now-established artists, including filmmaker Bruce LaBruce, John Massey, Kent Monkman, Joanne Todd and Christopher Lori. “He is very generous and supportive and genuinely passionate about artists in Canada,” says RM Vaughan, a contributing editor to Canadian Art, who has covered the gallery scene for decades. Bailey, a fixture in the front row of fashion shows, was a regular on the international art circuit, showing up at the big art fairs in Venice and Miami. In 2010, Bailey and his husband, Alfredo Ferran Calle, were listed in New York magazine’s guest list, along with James Franco and Patti Smith, at the party to commemorate the end of Marina Abramovic’s exhibition at MoMA.

“Bruce is a classic art-world figure,” says Vaughan. “There have always been people with money, people who pay for things; the art world thrives on free drinks.”

News that Bailey and Solomon had struck up a professional partnership, however, surprised many. Bailey and Solomon present as a study in contrasts, though both were raised in upper-middle-class affluence (lawyer fathers, private schools). Solomon, too, had an interest in art, having grown up in a family “that was very passionate about art,” according to Toronto artist Charlie Pachter, who attended University of Toronto with Solomon’s mother, Virginia, and has known him since childhood. A former CBC colleague also recalls Solomon mentioning in the early 2000s he was starting an art business with his wife, Tammy Quinn. “I got the sense that she was the instigator,” says the colleague. “Evan said he was really interested and learning a lot. He was a self-styled collector.”

But Bailey, believed to be in his 60s, is known for excess and grand gestures, a man who costumes himself in head-to-toe Hedi Slimane or shows up at a gallery opening in a bespoke suit with a leather belt wrapped around his neck. “He’s un-Canadian in his willingness to be outrageous and conspicuous,” says a friend. “That is his calling card in a way.” “Our Gatsby,” an attendee at one of his parties swooned to The Globe and Mail, apparently as a compliment. Some close to him say Bailey is well-known for being mercurial. “He could be friendly one minute and insult you an hour later,” says a man who who had a falling out with Bailey years ago, but continues to socialize with him. While there is no question Bailey has a brilliant eye—discovering new artists, making careers—one man who knows them both says, “Going into business with a character like Bruce Bailey seems so off-brand for Evan.”

Solomon, a family man, exudes wholesome, athletic energy. He limits his sartorial flash to bright socks and ties, and actively downplays his affluence; earlier this year, he described his style to the Ottawa Citizen as “comfort, classic and affordable.” And his brand was, from the beginning, built on a stream of socially conscious projects directed at bettering the world, not his bottom line.

At Shift, which was sold in 1996, Solomon was known for spotting and nurturing new talent, including Sheila Heti and Chris Turner, and for “shaking up the established order,” as one man who worked with him put it. With his business partner, Andrew Heintzman, Solomon spearheaded a series of entrepreneurial ventures: a think tank that addressed AIDS and world hunger, books of essays about sustainable energy and food security. There was a 1999 novel, Crossing the Distance, and after he married Quinn, a former film production manager, and became a father, there were two children’s booksso.

During his early television days, Solomon continued to be a conduit to a blossoming alternative culture. The CBC offered the perfect platform for his ideas and charisma. At the time the network was also betting on Jian Ghomeshi and George Stroumboulopoulos to appeal to a younger audience. Solomon etched out a place covering new ideas: he hosted The Changemakers, a series on new thinkers, Futureworld, a technology program, and Hot Type, a books show. His move to TV in the late 1990s didn’t surprise friends. “I think he found print journalism limiting,” says Barnaby Marshall, Slaight Music’s director of creative technology, who managed Shift’s website. “He’s built for TV—he’s good-looking, he’s articulate, he’s fast on his feet. He’s a great interviewer; he does push and doesn’t let people get away with stuff.”

Blair Gable/Reuters

Blair Gable/Reuters

In 2004, Solomon became co-anchor of CBC News: Sunday and CBC News: Sunday Night with Carole MacNeil. Clearly being groomed for bigger things, he was one of the first Canadian journalists inside the prison at Guantánamo Bay and to report from Banda Aceh in Indonesia after the tsunami. In 2009, with little political reporting experience, he was given the helm of Power and Politics, a program that replaced just-plain Politics, hosted by Ottawa veteran Don Newman. In 2011, Solomon also became host of The House, a one-hour weekly CBC Radio show that reaches 344,500 listeners.

Solomon and Quinn acclimatized to the Ottawa social swim, becoming fixtures at concerts, diplomatic parties and charity events, where Solomon often acted as emcee. The couple bought a house for $1.3 million in the exclusive Rockcliffe Park neighbourhood, one that sits around the corner from the house Justin Trudeau now rents, and is a five-minute walk from Carney’s. Their daughter attended an elite private school in the area. Quinn, who’d stopped working after marriage to study art history and pursue charity work, was founding chair of the Southam Club, a social hub at the National Arts Centre where she and Solomon mingled with Ottawa culturati, policy wonks and politicians, including Justin Trudeau.

Carney and Solomon also bonded as members of an informal group of fortysomething professionals who jogged at the crack of dawn through area parks and along waterfront paths. “I get up at 6:15 a.m. to run with the guys for 10k, and do 25 push-ups and 25 sit-ups,” Solomon told The Globe and Mail for a fitness story in 2010. The TV host was hailed as a “superstar eco-hero catalyst” by the Ottawa Citizen; he was chair of the committee of the inaugural Riverboat Gala in 2013, a fundraiser for Riverkeepers, a group that monitors the health of the Ottawa River. The event, which doubled as Carney’s going-away party, raised $150,000. Carney and Solomon clearly remained on friendly terms after Carney’s move to London. On April 25 of this year, Solomon tweeted a triumphant post-London marathon run with the Bank of England governor. (Carney declined to be interviewed for this story. A statement from a spokesman said the central banker has no “enduring professional relationship” with the broadcaster and never comments on personal matters.)

The day after the scandal broke, a clip from the 1994 film The Paper made the rounds on Twitter. In the scene, the veteran newspaperman played by Robert Duvall lectures a colleague on a journalistic conundrum: “Well, the people we cover—we move in their world but it is their world. You can’t live like them, Alicia. You’ll never keep up … We don’t get the money—never have, never will.” It’s not clear Solomon was angling to be part of the world he was covering, but he was far from the fringes. “I traffic in people of great power,” he told Simon Bredin, the author of a profile published this spring in the Ryerson Review of Journalism. “That’s my world. This is about as establishment in my field as it gets.”

Matt York/AP

BlackBerry mogul Jim Balsillie purchased art from Bailey, including the Peter Doig piece that resulted in the dispute between Bailey and Solomon, but knew nothing of a secret commission to Solomon. Matt York/AP

How closely Evan Solomon and Bruce Bailey stayed in touch over the years is not clear (neither Bailey nor Solomon responded to interview requests from Maclean’s). What is known is that Jim Balsillie served as an inadvertent catalyst in getting their business arrangement off the ground. Solomon approached Balsillie in the fall of 2013 to appear on Power and Politics to discuss sustainability and his expedition to the Arctic. Balsillie declined but agreed to meet Solomon for a drink and talk to him more informally. They met at a pub, the Village Idiot, before attending the Writer’s Trust Prize; Solomon sat on the jury, Balsillie was a guest.

What Balsillie did not know, until the Toronto Star called him earlier this month, is that the day before that first meeting, on Oct. 22, 2013, Solomon and Bailey hammered out a contract that clearly spelled out their arrangement for selling off pieces from Bailey’s personal collection: “Whereas Solomon is a Canadian journalist and has become familiar with collectors and others who might have an interest in purchasing Canadian and other art,” the agreement read, going on to name names, “Solomon agrees to, from time to time, introduce [Bailey] to such persons as Jim Balsillie, [billionaire entrepreneur] Reza Satchu and others who might be interested in purchasing the works of arts carried by [Bailey] or who have a relationship with [Bailey].”

Referral fees are common when it comes to art sales, says Charlie Pachter. “A lot of action in the art world is interior designers with very wealthy clients who take a percentage for placing a work; it varies from 10 to 20.” As he sees it, 10 per cent is “negligible”: “Galleries take 50 per cent. I have had rich ladies from Rosedale say, ‘I’ve got someone who wants to see your work; if we make a sale is there something in it for me?’ I say, ‘Of course. I’ve done it for my own friends.'” Solomon would be useful to Bruce, says a source who knows them both. “[Bruce] was too eccentric for a certain segment of Canadian society. He can’t just phone up Mark Carney, but Evan Solomon can.”

Vaughan points out that referral fees are typically deserved: super-wealthy buyers are very fussy and need a lot of hand-holding. “They don’t buy art because they like it or it speaks to them or because they want it,” he says. “They buy it as an investment. With that comes a particular social anxiety.”

What was striking about Solomon and Bailey’s arrangement was that Balsillie, who has five art advisers on retainer, was not looking for any such help from Solomon. Nor was the TV host’s referral commission ever discussed with him. Solomon would also profit from a connection made via Power and Politics—though his deal with Bailey was struck at a time when CBC hosts routinely monetized their public profile. On the speaker’s circuit, Solomon was being paid $5,000 to $10,000 for appearances, according to his agency, Speaker’s Spotlight, which presented Solomon as someone who “spends his professional life interviewing the powerbrokers and politicians that influence crucial decisions in business, innovation, technology, society, and sustainability—in Canada and around the world.” If one is to take Solomon at his word, he did not view the art business any differently.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail/CP

Kim Dorland, standing between his works. The price range of one of his paintings: $18,000-25,000. Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail/CP

Balsillie, for his part, didn’t know art was on the agenda when Bailey, also a guest at the gala, joined them at the Village Idiot that evening. That the two men hit it off isn’t surprising. Balsillie is a serious collector, and what Bailey had to sell was very desirable, including work by Peter Doig, the Edinburgh-born painter whose work references years spent in Canada as a boy. A Toronto man familiar with the art scene recalls seeing several Doigs at Bailey’s country house 15 years ago. “That’s when you could get a Doig for a song,” he says. “Bruce has a fabulous eye.” In the past decade, prices for Doig’s work have exploded. In 2013, his painting The Architect’s Home in the Ravine sold for $12 million at a London auction.

Balsillie and Bailey stayed in touch; the former BlackBerry magnate viewed him as a friend, not a dealer, although he bought works from him, including a Doig. Balsillie also saw Solomon socially a handful of times after that October meeting. Solomon and Bailey’s business, meanwhile, appeared to be booming, despite a deal falling through with an unnamed Dutch ambassador in the summer of 2014. In December, the two sold Carney a painting by Canadian artist Kim Dorland for $22,500, at a “friend” discount. “We just sold the Kim Dorland to Mark Carney!” Solomon wrote in an email, suggesting there could be more sales like it: “A great client and his circle is very wide. He liked our 10 per cent off!” Solomon added that Carney has a “super sensitive” position in England and advised Bailey to be very “discreet” about the purchase. Still, Solomon couldn’t help express excitement about the doors Carney could open: “Next year in terms of the Guv will be very interesting,” he wrote. “He has access to highest power network in the world,” promising “contacts for other buyers—Doig size—will be in the offing.”

What Solomon was referring to, no doubt, was the access to wealth provided by Carney’s in-laws. His wife, Diana Fox Carney, an Oxford-educated development economist, is sister to Lady Tania Rotherwick, the wife of Lord Rotherwick, a shipping heir. The Rotherwick estate, Cornbury Park in Oxfordshire, is home to the popular weekend-long Wilderness Festival, dubbed “Poshstock” due to its well-heeled audience. Past attendees have included Prince Harry and the “Chipping Norton set”—a group of powerful friends living in the area who include Prime Minister David Cameron and Elisabeth Murdoch. The Carneys appeared at Poshstock shortly after moving to England in 2013, an appearance that signalled to the Evening Standard a “sign that he might be willing to embrace the very grand social milieu of his aristocratic in-laws.”

But Diana Carney’s mother, Jennifer Atkinson, shot down any notions that they had social-climbing aspirations. “They are totally unmaterialistic,” she told the Times of London in 2013. Atkinson pointed out that Mark Carney had turned down a chauffeur-driven car at his previous job. “They’re not ostentatious in any way,” she said, adding that the only thing they spend money on is art, and that was once a year, when they bought a piece to mark their wedding anniversary. Their home in Ottawa was low-key and cosy, says one source, who recalls the kids’ rooms painted in fun, unfashionable colours. Their move to England represented a huge step up, given Carney’s pay packet of $963,000 a year, but it didn’t appear to alter their determinedly modest lifestyle.

Gaby Gerster/laif/Redux

Peter Doig, standing in front of his work. Price of a recent Doig at auction: $12 million. Gaby Gerster/laif/Redux

For Solomon, the spring of 2015 was financially eventful. On Feb. 19, a month after the CBC prohibited staff from taking paid speaking gigs, he wrote a letter to Bailey demanding more than $1 million in unpaid commission on the Doig painting sold to Balsillie. Six days after he sent that letter, Solomon sold a severed portion of his lot to a neighbour for $130,000. On April 10, a $1-million charge was registered on the Rockcliffe Park house. Real estate experts note that the most likely explanation is that it’s a line of credit for up to $1 million; it could alternatively represent a refinancing of the existing mortgage. The existing mortgage on the house, dating to the 2009 purchase, is for $750,000; there was an additional $200,000 charge registered on the date of purchase, which was discharged on April 17, 2015. Adding to the mystery, the property has been on the market on an “exclusive” listing for $1.65 million since April 2013.

Also in April, according to CBC spokesman Chuck Thompson, Solomon “voluntarily” informed senior news management that he was in a “business partnership” with his wife and an art dealer in which he was a purely silent partner. “We were very clear when he brought it to our attention that no lines could be crossed with regards to our journalistic and standards practices, nor the conflict of interest and ethics policy.”

On June 9, the news of the secret deals broke in the Toronto Star. The story was the buzz of the Toronto art world, says Charlie Pachter: “People called and said, ‘Are you shocked and appalled?’ And I said, ‘Yeah. I’m shocked and appalled he didn’t sell any of my work.'”

Others are more critical of the fact Solomon didn’t report his commissions to Balsillie. It would seem he violated not only a cardinal rule of journalism, but also an unwritten code in the art world. The art market is relatively unregulated, meaning there can be a lack of disclosure and opacity of business methods, says an art-world insider familiar with international markets. “Doing deals behind collectors’ backs is common,” she says. “There are all sorts of creepy things that go on.” But the lack of transparency in commissions taken by Solomon was “an example of the absolute worst,” she says. “The journalists I know who do advising are freelancers, not someone with a high-profile staff job. There’s no excuse if you’re well-versed in the company’s code of ethics. This to me reveals personality rather than just someone who backed into it. It’s so wilful and greedy.”

The end of Solomon’s tenure at CBC was swift. Chuck Thompson, the network’s main spokesperson, received a phone message from Toronto Star reporter Kevin Donovan at around 10:30 a.m. on Monday, June 8, asking if the broadcaster was aware of their host’s art dealings. Solomon had already been contacted by the paper and denied any involvement. “I have never sold any art to anyone,” he initially told the Star. Later he modified his story, admitting that there had been an art venture, but that it was no longer active and saying that it had all been disclosed to his bosses at the CBC.

After the call from the Star, there was another discussion between Solomon and management where he again assured them that no rules had been broken. When that information was relayed to Donovan, however, the reporter provided the CBC with emails and a draft contract between the host and Bailey, which seemed to demonstrate that Solomon was using his position to recruit art clients. By Monday afternoon, the CBC had decided to suspend Solomon and launch its own internal investigation.

His colleagues at Power and Politics were informed Solomon needed to take some time off “for personal reasons,” and viewers of Monday’s show were told only that the host was “away.” The debate about how to react to the CBC’s latest scandal, and what to do with Solomon, continued on Tuesday. In the version making the rounds at the network, Jennifer McGuire, general manager and editor-in-chief of CBC News and Centres, was advocating that he face some sort of censure but keep his job. It was her boss, Heather Conway, the executive vice-president of English services thrust into the forefront with the Ghomeshi scandal, who insisted that he be shown the door. The Star put its story up on the web early Tuesday evening. Shortly thereafter, McGuire issued a statement that CBC News had “ended its relationship with Evan Solomon.”

The network says its decision to fire him had already been made before publication (based, it claims, on violations of internal code of conduct, interest and ethics, and journalistic standards policies, all of which prohibit employees from using their positions to “inappropriately obtain an advantage for themselves”). Solomon’s colleagues learned about it when they read the news online after their broadcast ended at 7 p.m. There was an emotional meeting in their Ottawa offices, where shock quickly gave way to anger and dismay that the CBC had once again been blindsided by the conduct of one of its stars.

Solomon issued a statement of apology: “I am deeply sorry for the damage that my activities have done to the trust that the CBC and its viewers and listeners have put in me,” it read. He has made no other comment. The Canadian Media Guild, the union that represents him, followed with its own statement the next day, expressing concern there “may have been a rush to judgment” and a “disproportionate response” by the CBC. Carmel Smyth, CMG national president, did not respond to a request for an interview. And the network seems intent on saying as little as possible about the affair, declining a request for an interview with management. On Wednesday, Rosie Barton, the replacement host of Power and Politics, paid tribute to Solomon’s voice and tenacity, but noted that the show is bigger than the presenter, vowing to continue to present the “best political journalism, always with you, the viewer, in mind.”

The CBC’s quick and decisive handling of Solomon has only served to raise questions about the way the network has chosen to deal with missteps by other hosts, notably Amanda Lang. Lang and Solomon’s transgressions were not the same, Thompson told Maclean’s. “They were different circumstances, most notably in that the content that went to air [in Lang’s case] was not compromised.”

Solomon has gone to ground, reportedly devastated, though when a Toronto Star photographer captured him through his kitchen window, the former host gave him a thumbs-up. “That’s typical Evan,” says a friend. “Always aware of how it will play.” Another points to an irony: “This whole story is one that Evan would have loved to have covered himself—were he not at the centre of it, of course.” In fact, in an April 7 segment on Power and Politics about the Mike Duffy trial, Solomon provided a perfect crystallization of his own story: “We, frankly, spend our entire lives as journalists trying to get beyond the polish and the spin. This trial is like an autopsy on the body, where we get to see inside—all the emails. So it’s fascinating for us.”

On the first page of his 1999 novel, Crossing the Distance, Solomon writes about betrayal: “Betrayal isn’t something you choose, it’s something that chooses you,” he writes. The statement, which has a fortune-cookie veracity to it, has resonance in Solomon’s current predicament, which has layers of betrayal to it. Most obvious is his betrayal of his employer, his colleagues, his audience and his well-placed friends, who didn’t make a choice. But his subtler act of betrayal was to himself, the product of choices he did make.

with Jonathon Gatehouse, Aaron Hutchins and Zoe McKnight

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