The hiring of an investigator to help IRAC get to the bottom of a farm purchase by an Irving related corporation last year only muddies what should be a clear and simple process.
Last week Justice Minister Bloyce Thompson announced that Gerard Mitchell has been retained to investigate the sale of the 2,200 Brendel Farms. Mitchell is a retired Supreme Court justice with an impeccable resume. But regardless of his CV, the appointment will only add to public suspicion over government and IRAC’s response to the sale.
As one of its last acts before dropping the writ to the last provincial election, the MacLauchlan government rejected the farm’s sale to an Irving corporation. The Lands Protection Act gives government the right to enforce corporate and individual land holdings of 3,000 and 1,000 acres. In response, the daughter of Mary Jean Irving used a share purchase agreement to subsequently acquire the potato operation without obtaining executive council approval, required under the act.
The King administration has been long on rhetoric and short on action with its promise to bring the defining piece of Island legislation up to modern standards by closing potential loopholes and ensuring greater public transparency over who owns what land and who the shareholders are in those corporations.
The share sale took place under the watch of then Deputy Minister of Justice Erin Mitchell. In December the King government appointed her a full-time IRAC commissioner.
It does not take a rocket scientist to see the potential her father’s appointment has to raise eyebrows. Law firms routinely reject representing clients if the firm already represents the opposing side to avoid the potential appearance of a conflict of interest.
It is debatable whether Justice Mitchell’s appointment represents a real conflict, but there is a strong argument that a potential appearance of conflict exists. How can you be seen as impartially investigating a sale involving a provincial department, run by your daughter, that was unaware a sale occurred until it was reported in Island media? And how can an arm’s-length government body be seen as impartial when it hires a legal investigator whose daughter is now a full time employee of the investigating body?
In October IRAC promised to complete its investigation by December. No new deadline is being offered, which raises a question about what the public oversight body has been doing since the sale was first made public last fall.
IRAC is not short of staff. Why is there even a need to hire Mitchell as lead investigator, and Charlottetown lawyer Gordon MacKay as his second, to work alongside IRAC’s full-time staff? The facts of the sale are generally accepted. It was proposed and rejected. Then a new Irving related corporation was formed to purchase the shares of the farm corporation without benefit of asking executive council for approval.
For the Lands Protection Act to be seen as substantive and not a paper tiger requires the intention and integrity of the act be upheld. Integrity includes investigations being seen by all sides as impartial. IRAC and the King government are unnecessarily allowing questions of integrity to be raised through the appointment of Justice Mitchell, regardless of how thorough his investigation is.
The ultimate conclusion could lead to the forced divestiture of property and or levying of stiff fines. It is serious business and a process rife with potential political and corporate repercussions, which make it confounding the King administration and IRAC would give the Irvings a free punch to potentially diminish the investigation’s credibility.
This is not a question of Justice Mitchell’s integrity. It is a question of how his investigation is seen by ordinary Islanders and the Irvings. Because of it, Minister Thompson should demand IRAC take immediate action to eliminate any appearance of potential conflict. The investigation must be above reproach, an impossible task if Justice Mitchell remains.
Paul MacNeill is Publisher of Island Press Limited. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org