Dom LeBlanc does in-and-out affair à la Folsom County

After Liberal caucus today, MP Dominic LeBlanc had a funny riff while speaking to reporters about the Conservative Party’s response to the in-and-out affair.

Every since four Conservative Party officials were charged with Elections Act violations, Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre has repeatedly spun the line that the charges are administrative in nature and that the dispute with Elections Canada is simply an accounting issue.

Here’s LeBlanc take that had some reporters giggling


NOTE: Earl Jones is a convicted scam artist sometimes likened to Canada’s Bernie Madoff.

Alleged Rather attacker paroled but, Kenneth, the frequency remains unclear

“A FEW TASTEFUL SNAPS” EXCLUSIVE ON BIZARRE 1986 INCIDENT!

For years, I have been watching closely the progress through the New York State penal system of William Tager, a North Carolina man who shot an NBC technician outside of the broadcaster’s studios at Rockerfeller Plaza in 1994.  Tager plead guilty to 1st degree manslaughter in 1996 and until last fall, had resided at Sing Sing Correctional Facility on a 12 1/2 to 25 year sentence.

(The Tager case was unusually similar to the 1995 homicide in my home town, Ottawa, of CJOH TV sportscaster Brian Smith, who was shot by a paranoid schizophrenic man he never knew. To this day, the security booth at my employer, the Ottawa Citizen, has a photo of Jeffrey Arenburg, since paroled, posted in case he decides to pay a visit.)

What makes the Tager case fascinating, however, is its link to one of the strangest events in modern media history  –the apparently random and unprovoked attack on CBS anchorman Dan Rather, in the foyer of a Manhattan apartment building in 1986.

During the attack, one of the assailants — Rather claimed two men beat him — repeated a question that Rather said was, “Kenneth, what is the frequency?”  No one was ever arrested or charged in the peculiar incident and Rather was unable to offer an explanation of why he was attacked or the cryptic question.

The Rather incident was the subject of an R.E.M. song of a similar title.  R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe described the attack as “the premier surrealist act of the 20th century.”

But after Tager was convicted of killing the NBC technician, a court-appointed psychiatrist who had examined him told New York newspapers that he believed Tager was responsible for the Rather attack.  Dr. Park Dietz told the New York Daily News there is “no question that it was William Tager who  assaulted Dan Rather”

Rather was shown a photo and positively identified Tager. “There’s no doubt in my mind that this is the person,” he said.

The other man allegedly involved was conveniently discarded as the New York tabloids decided that Tager was responsible.  Some theorized that because Tager was Jewish, the bizarre phrase uttered during the assault might have in fact been, “Goniff, what is the frequency?” — goniff being a Yiddish word for thief.  That Tager had committed the attack was never again questioned, except in a brilliant, satirical piece in Harper’s that fingered novelist Donald Barthleme.

Tager never got a chance to respond. He wasn’t charged or tried for the attack and never commented on it publicly. To this day, his role in the Rather attack is merely an allegation.

Rather sings "What's the Frequency, Kenneth" with R.E.M.

A few years ago, I personally wrote to Tager at Sing Sing and asked  him about the Rather allegation. No response.

In October, the New York States Department of Correctional Services website showed that Tager, now 63, had been paroled. I filed a request under the New York State Freedom of Information law for transcripts of his parole hearing. Was it possible, I wondered, that he was asked about the Rather allegation by the parole board? Maybe he copped to it, I thought.

Unfortunately, as you can see in the response posted below, Tager never went before a parole board hearing. He was granted a “limited  time credit allowance,” which is a sort of good-behaviour clause that allows early release, given conditions for release, and left prison on Oct. 27, 2010.

From the Parole Board documents below, we know that Tager is again living in New York City and probably in Manhattan. He is not allowed to drive a car. He cannot drink and can’t set foot in a bar. He must undergo substance abuse testing and counselling. He has a curfew set by his parole officer, and gets mental health counselling.

But what we still don’t know is whether William Tager was author of the strangest incident in the strange career of Dan Rather.

What’s the in-and-out case against Senator Doug Finley?

A mild surprise within the larger shock of the Elections Act charges laid last week was that Senator Doug Finley numbered among the four Conservative Party officials charged.

Finley’s Senate caucus colleague, Irving Gerstein, was then the party’s official agent in the 2006 campaign and responsible for signing off on its financial return.  As Andrew Cohen notes in today’s Citizen, Gerstein was primarily a fund-raiser.  It is unlikely he was involved in the day-to-day planning of radio and TV advertising purchases during the campaign. But, his signature’s on the return so he’s responsible in law.

The two others charged,  Mike Donison and Susan Kehoe, were both involved in the advertising purchases at the centre of the in-and-out affair. One can see their names referenced in the affidavit prepared by Elections Canada to support the application for a search warrant on Conservative Party headquarters in 2008.  It includes copies of emails written by Donison, planning the transactions later disputed by the electoral watchdog.  Kehoe’s name is printed on the invoices submitted by the party’s media buyer.

So, not surprising that these three were named.

But Finley  appears in the search warrant affidavit chiefly as a cc. recipient on the in-and-out emails. I couldn’t find a single thing he’d actually written within the voluminous documents, or even a reference made by another person to something he did, said or wrote.

And unlike Gerstein, Finley’s role as campaign manager is not an official capacity under the Elections Act. It is an important title, no doubt, but it is essentially an invention of modern political campaigns with no connection to the law. So he would have no statutory responsibility under the Act to ensure the return was accurate.

Now, as the party’s top strategist, one would expect that Finley was in the loop on all major decisions. And keep in mind that the affidavit was prepared before the execution of the search warrants, based only on information available to Elections Canada at the time. Investigators later removed reams of documents and hard-drives full of electronic records from CPC HQ and spent more than a year poring over them.

One can speculate that the basis for charges against Finley was obtained through this process but until the case goes to trial, we can only guess.

ATIPing expense accounts in CBC’s parliamentary bureau

I didn’t really want to find myself anywhere near the DMZ between CBC and Sun Media, but the “state broadcaster” post shook this loose and it’s worth discussing:

There’s some concern among CBC journos in the Parliamentary bureau that their personal expense claims have been requested through the Access to Information Act.  The first reaction, of course, is laughter: Reporters’ expenses tend to be interesting chiefly in their parsimony or, more often in these lean times, their complete absence.

But then there’s the intrigue about who’s requesting the expenses and why.

When the open-records law was extended to the CBC, an exemption was granted for journalism — that is, records that would compromise a journalists’ work wouldn’t be released. There has much agonizing about this at the time legislation was introduced.

But where does this leave an expense claim?

If your expenses show you charged for steaks and drinks at Hy’s with an unnamed source, I can’t see a problem. Ordered a few rounds at Pigale on the company plastic? Have at it, ATIPers.  CBC deniers will delight in the turnabout — reporters who feast on ATIPing the government now find themselves in the crosshairs.

But what if you’re Harvey Cashore at the 5th estate, logging a lot of air miles flying to specific locations in Germany on the CBC dime? A smart records requester could figure out why you and a camera crew are going there and respond accordingly.

As for the identity of the requester(s), that’s quite rightly protected under the Access law. But in the CBC bunker, there’s not much mystery. They’re pretty sure it’s Sun Media, which has filed literally hundreds of ATIPs on the Mother Corp. over the past few years (Sun papers passim, ad infinitum).

Just pro forma, I asked Sun bureau chief David Akin if his bureau had filed ATIPs for CBC Parliamentary reporters’ expense. He quite properly told me to pound sand, as I would if he asked me what I was ATIPing.

Discuss among yourselves…

UPDATE: Sun reporter Brian Lilley, who writes most of the CBC stuff, wrote on a similar issue a couple of weeks ago.  The requester — not Sun Media, the story says — sought expenses claimed by chief anchor Peter Mansbridge and columnist Heather Mallick, a bête noire to conservatives for her villification of Sarah Palin. CBC did not release the documents.

CBC’s internal manual on access to information may warn their journalists that what they spend tax dollars on can become public, but the state broadcaster has refused several requests submitted by Canadians.  Requests for the expenses, none of which were submitted by or on behalf of QMI Agency, were all made in 2010.


Fair to call CBC “state broadcaster”?

In response to my last post, Sun Media Parliamentary bureau chief David Akin defended his company’s use of the term “state broadcaster” to describe the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

On Twitter, David explained:

We call CBC state broadcaster cuz its funded by the state. NPR is public broadcaster cuz funding mostly by donations solicited from public.

…and…

Also: CBC is a “state broadcaster” because the “state” gets to pick the board and its chairman. Luckily our “state” is a democracy.

…and…

Trust me: ‘Crats at Heritage Canada believe CBC is their “state broadcaster”. Been in the room they’ve used the phrase.

I like David a lot and think he’s a great reporter, but he has to know this is a loaded term that makes one think of Soviet-era Tass, a propaganda arm for the government.

I was curious about how long “state broadcaster” had been part of the Sun Media style guide, so I ran the term through Infomart.

According to my search, “state broadcaster” had been used by Toronto Sun people to describe CBC just five times between 1996 and 2010, and by columnists such as Peter Worthington, Rick Gibbons and Michael Coren.

Then, in June 2010, a quote in the Sun from former PMO Director of Communications and then Sun Media executive Kory Teneycke: “We will not be a state broadcaster offering boring news by bureaucrats, for elites, and paid for by the taxpayers.”

Since then, in less than a year, the Sun has used the term in reference to CBC in a total of 39 times — and almost all were stories by Sun parliamentary reporter Brian Lilley.

UPDATE: Brian Lilley makes the argument for “state broadcaster” on his blog and digs up examples of other media using the same term to describe CBC.   He cites Paul Wells in Maclean’s, Susan Delacourt and Rondi Adamson (!) in the Star, John Doyle in the Globe, and a Reuters story. Save for the last, all are columnists, so probably not really indicative of their new organizations style for reporting.  Brian also notes that he and I discussed his use of the term when we worked together in the Hot Room. But Brian, we thought you were kidding.  Also, I’m not “bothered” by your use of the phrase. I’m amused. I don’t really take a position on its fairness. I wouldn’t use it in my reporting because it is a loaded term that has connotations that transcend it’s intended meaning.  But, others clearly differ.

UPDATE: Visualization, please…

“Herd on the hill”: Counting cattle in the press gallery

I’ve noticed that Sun Media, in it’s ongoing jihad against the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, has started referring to CBC on second reference as “the state broadcaster.”  This is comic on a number of levels I won’t get into here and it always makes me think of North Korean television.

CBC’s English television service, the target of much of the Sun’s coverage, is the top media employer on the Hill, with 52 accredited members, many of them camera operators and techs.

The CBC continues to ramp up staff for its online political coverage and recently added two more reporters, one from the Sun and the other from Postmedia.

The Chinese news agency Xinhua — which arguably is a state media organization — reaches the largest potential audience, but has just two staff on the Hill. They are outnumbered by the virulently anti-communist Falun Gong-affiliated media, Epoch Times and New Tang Dynasty TV, who have five total. (One of them sits next to me in the Hotroom.)

My paper, the Ottawa Citizen, has the same number of bodies as the Vietnam  Press Service. That’s a bit misleading — we get most of our political coverage the Postmedia bureau.

I’d love to find a way to compare bureau size with number of scoops, but that would be hard to quantify. Suffice to say, there’re great reporters in every bureau.

The February Surprise: The in-and-out story was all but forgotten

It’s been a tough slog pitching stories to editors about the in-and-out affair over the past few years.

It was always an alleged scandal that only a forensic account could love, so complex was the series of wire transfers the party had conducted to help fund its 2006 election advertising and the rules they were accused of breaking.

But interest in the story went through the roof in April 2008, when investigators acting on behalf of Commissioner of Canada Elections William Corbett raided the Conservative Party headquarters. The allegations were further fleshed out in the documents used to obtain search warrants. That produced a lot of reporting, some about the Tories’ holy war against Marc Mayrand, the mild-mannered bureaucrat who heads Elections Canada.

Then… nothing really happened.

Elections Canada went mute, saying only that Corbett was reviewing the file. That went on for several years.

Last year, Joan Bryden at the Canadian Press reported that Corbett had referred the case to the Director of Public Prosecutions Brian Saunders in 2009. But Saunders sat on the case and the file did not appear to be moving.  The Canadian media largely lost interest.

Confusing the issue was the parallel court case the Tories brought against Mayrand in Federal Court, challenging his authority to question the validity of their expense claims for 2006 regional ad purchases. The Tories won in the first round and Elections Canada has appealed. A decision is expected on that case soon, but it will almost certainly be appealed to the Supreme Court, regardless of the outcome.

I threw together a quickie graph showing the number of news reports on the in-and-out affair in Canadian media.

I expect that 2011 number will, uh, rise sharply.

“In-and-out” data journalism and the charges against Conservative Party officials

Election Canada raid on CPC HQ in April 2008

The huge political story in Canada today is that the Commissioner of Canada Elections has (finally) laid charges over the Conservative Party’s campaign spending in the 2006 election.

Four Conservative officials, two who have since been elevated to the Senate, face charges under the Canada Elections Act in the “in and out” affair.

My colleague, Tim Naumetz, and I first starting writing about this in the summer of 2007. So, this has been a long time coming.

Our original reporting on this story relied heavily on data journalism approaches.  I’m writing about this here to illustrate the value of data analysis as a technique for covering politics, which is, of course, all about numbers – votes, polls, election finance.

Tim and I used the open-source relational database MySQL to analyze election spending reports to first detect the pattern of cash transfers between the party and its candidates at the centre of the in-and-out affair.

Coincidentally, I’m in Raleigh, North Carolina, this week for a conference on computer-assisted reporting. It’s killing me not being in Ottawa to continue covering this story.

(I find solace knowing that the re-emergence of in-and-out will help me justify to my editors the cost of coming here for more CAR training.)

Here’s a piece I did in 2008 for the Canadian Association of Journalists Media Magazine on how Tim and I first found the in-and-out transactions at the centre of the charges laid last week:

In the midst of a deadly slow August morning in the press gallery on Parliament Hill, reporter Tim Naumetz was looking over a few candidate spending returns from the 2006 federal election.

Every candidate is required by law to file an expense report with Elections Canada. Usually, they are a dull accounting of the costs incurred in running a local campaign– yard signs, phone rentals, pizza parties and the like.

But in this sea of numbers, one line item jumped out at Tim. An unsuccessful Conservative candidate’s campaign had incurred more than $30,000 for “radio/TV” advertising.

Most candidates spend a few thousand dollars for ads in their local papers and some even shell out more for radio spots in their local market. But $30,000 for a single ad buy was highly unusual. And in this case, the supplier of the ad was listed as the Conservative Party of Canada, not a newspaper or radio station.

Why, he wondered, would a candidate pay his own party that much money for ads?

At the same time, one row of desks over from Tim in the Press Gallery “Hot Room”, I was creating a database of election financing records.  The Conservative government’s Federal Accountability Act had changed the rules for political donations, and I was curious to see which parties were benefiting from the tighter contribution limits.  I had been to several Canadian Association of Journalists seminars on computer-assisted reporting (CAR) and had just finished two long-term projects using electronic records. I was interested in using CAR techniques with political financing records.

Tim brought over a copy of the expense report he was looking at. Was it possible, we wondered, that some parties were trying to bypass the federal limit on campaign spending by getting their candidates to pay for national campaign ads?

We realized that it would be an exhausting task to check each and every return for the more than 1,000 candidates who ran in 2006.  Instead, I suggested we create a database of all candidate election returns to find out who else was spending large amounts on advertising.

In most CAR projects, getting data from government involves making an Access to Information request and, often, fighting with bureaucrats for the records. In this case, all the data we needed was sitting on Elections Canada’s website.

We downloaded the records in text format, imported them into the open-source MySQL database manager, and began crunching the numbers.  The data showed that dozens of others Conservative candidates had posted six-figure expense claims for broadcast advertising.  We sorted the list of candidates based on their broadcast advertising spending and started calling the names at the top of the list.

The first candidate we talked to was a lawyer named Sam Goldstein, who had ran unsuccessfully in downtown Toronto. He described a scheme in which the Conservative Party transferred large amounts to their candidates, who then paid the party for advertising.  The ads were not for the candidates, but rather, for national advertising, he explained.

Why would candidates agree to these financial transactions? Because the money flowing through their campaigns boosted their spending and qualified for them from a larger rebate from Elections Canada, Mr. Goldstein said. Candidates who get more than 10 per cent of the vote in their riding are eligible for tax-payer funded reimbursement of 60 per cent of their allowable expenses.  It was, Mr. Goldstein said, all legal.

We went back to the database and began looking for other large transfers of money from the party to the candidates.  Using MySQL, we were able to quickly compare the transfers the candidates received with against the expenses they claimed for radio or TV advertising.

The results were striking.  Nearly a third of all Conservative candidate campaigns had received substantial transfers from the party, then turned around and bought ads from the party. Many paid in advertising exactly the same amount they received in transfers, the data showed.

Together, they had bought more than $1.2 million in broadcast advertising from the party. Had the national party incurred these costs directly, it would have exceeded its $18.3 million limit on spending limit for the 2006 campaign and put the party in serious violation of the Elections Act.

Not only would the transfers and expenses qualify the candidates for larger rebates, they also appeared to allow the party to spend money on crucial broadcast ads outside its national budget.  At the very least, it seemed we’d found a loophole in the elections law. At worst, it might be an attempt to skate around the rules.

We spent several more days calling other candidates on our list to confirm what Mr. Goldstein had told us.  We also ran the same data analysis on Liberal, NDP and Bloc Quebecois candidates.

Although the other parties all made transfers to their candidates, there was no indication of the same coordinated effort to return money in advertising costs to the federal parties, the data showed.

The afternoon before we were to publish out first story, we made a surprising discovery.  A Conservative Party official told us that the transactions we were interested was the subject of a case currently in Federal Court. The court records showed that auditors for Elections Canada had also detected the unusual pattern of transfers and expenses. Like us, the auditors followed up with the candidates and their official agents. These officials had also described the same system to boost candidate expenses. One official quoted in court papers gave it a name — an “in-and-out.”

The court documents showed that Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand had refused to allow the candidates to claim the expenses.  The official agents for 34 Conservative had taken Mr. Mayrand to court over that decision, saying the claims for “regional media buys” were proper and legal.

In subsequent stories, we reported that Commissioner of Elections William Corbett had launched his own investigation and could, if warranted, refer the matter for prosecution. We also found e-mails that showed the financial transactions had been orchestrated by a senior party official.

Other reporters began advancing the story, too. Helene Buzzetti at Le Devoir did some excellent work tracking down former Conservative candidates in Quebec who were dismayed by the scheme.

In response to our stories, a House of Commons committee began its own probe of Conservative election financing, but it was dissolved when Parliament was prorogued this fall. The committee is expected to resume its hearings later this year. The federal court case is ongoing but is unlikely to conclude any time soon. Mr. Corbett has yet to report on his investigation and, at this writing, the political fallout of the story is still unresolved.

 

The Tim Horton autopsy: Canada’s most famous drunk driver

Monday will mark the 37th anniversary of the death of Miles Gilbert “Tim” Horton.

In Canada, Tim Horton needs no introduction. (For everyone else, Horton was a bruising defenceman for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1960s and 1970s. He is better known now for his eponymous chain of donut and coffee shops that have transcended even hockey as a national totem.)

Horton died on Feb. 21, 1974 when his car flew off the Queen Elizabeth Way en route to Buffalo, NY, after a game in Toronto.

For years, there had been well-founded speculation that Horton was drunk when he crashed and died. But the police denied it at the time of the accident, and since no one else was injured in the single-vehicle crash, there was never any public inquiry.

However, I found a loophole in Ontario’s Freedom of Information law that allowed me to get a copy of his autopsy.  Under Ontario law, the privacy exemption that keeps information like autopsies from public view expires 30 years after the subject’s death. That meant Horton’s file was no longer covered by privacy provisions as of Feb. 21, 2004.

It took more than a year before I finally got the file sent to me via the Archives of Ontario. I wrote a story  based on the autopsy in 2005 (Citizen links expire after three months, so this will have to do).

To date, this remains the most interesting document I have ever received through the open-records law.

The detail is clinical and vivid — the description of what Horton was wearing, what was in his car, the grim catalogue of his massive injuries. The pictures show the wrecked Ford Pantera and the responding police officer’s diagram and notes explain how Horton was tossed from the car at high speed.

And, the autopsy reveals, not only was Horton quite drunk — twice the legal limit, the post-mortem blood alcohol test showed — but it also appears he had been taking an amphetamine. He was found with Dexamyl pills on his body.

Dexamyl combined dextroamphetamine with amobarbital, a barbiturate, to take the edge off. It was a popular party drug in the 60s (Andy Warhol popped them) that had also been marketed to harried housewives before it was sensibly outlawed.

Horton was likely taking these to stay competitive in the NHL. He was still playing at age 45 44 and probably felt he needed an edge to keep up with players 20 years younger.

Warning: Some of the medical details in the autopsy may be disturbing to some readers.

(P.S. If you’re a journalist and use this document for a story, please credit me and/or the Ottawa Citizen. It was a huge pain in the ass to get.)