Why is it so hard for Stephen McNeil to acknowledge mistakes were made, let alone admit he or anyone in his orbit ever does anything wrong? The latest Hugh MacKay drunk-driving allegations offer a premier case study in Trumpian counterattack, obfuscation and butt-covering.
Stephen McNeil insists he knew nothing, his chief of staff did nothing wrong, and it’s all the fault of the author of an email or/and the leader of the opposition for failing to go to the police with information Chester-St. Margaret’s MLA Hugh MacKay might have been driving drunk almost a year before he was convicted in another impaired driving incident.
Why is it so hard for our premier to acknowledge mistakes were made, let alone admit he or anyone else in his orbit ever does anything wrong?
Let’s review how we got here.
At 11:30 pm on Sunday, October 13, 2019 — in the middle of the Thanksgiving weekend — Hugh MacKay was pulled over by the RCMP on Indian Point Road after his brother-in-law called police to report the two had had an argument and MacKay might be driving drunk.
When RCMP stopped his car, officers “reported the vehicle had a strong odour of alcohol and there was a glass of what appeared to be alcohol in a cup holder in the centre console of the SUV. They recorded his movements as laboured and slow, noting he was unsteady on his feet when he exited the vehicle.” On the way to the Tantallon RCMP detachment for testing — his blood alcohol level turned out to be more than twice the legal limit — MacKay asked the Mountie if his arrest was “politically motivated.”
The following Tuesday morning, MacKay spoke with Premier Stephen McNeil about the incident, after which the Liberal caucus issued a statement in which MacKay said he was “truly and deeply sorry for my actions and the negative effect they have had on all those I love and respect.” Acknowledging he had battled alcohol addiction for many years, MacKay said he was now getting treatment for his illness. “This relapse has not only impacted myself, my family, my colleagues and my community — but as an elected official, I am also aware of how much this news may impact people from throughout the province.”
On November 8, MacKay pleaded guilty, was fined $2,000 and had his driver’s licence suspended for a year.
A week after that, MacKay was back on the job, announcing provincial funding for a ride-sharing service in his constituency. When CBC reporter Jean Laroche asked him point-blank that day if the Thanksgiving arrest had been the only time he had driven drunk, MacKay answered: “I can’t think of any circumstance where that’s occurred.”
That does not now appear to have been correct.
And more than a few people in the Liberal party would have been aware of it.
That’s because, on May 6, 2019 — a full five months before he was first charged with impaired driving, and six months before he publicly claimed he hadn’t done it before — a member of the board of directors of the Chester-St. Margarets’ Liberal riding association emailed a detailed, four-page memo to the president and two other party officials detailing “allegations of criminal activity” by MacKay six months earlier, in November 2018, including “impaired driving, dangerous driving, hit-and-run involving an individual, leaving the scene of an accident, destruction of public property [and] conspiracy to cover up criminal activity.”
The memo was detailed — “On or about November 22, 2018, at approximately 3:30 in the afternoon, I received a frantic call from [MacKay’s assistant] Penny Lawless telling me Hugh MacKay was very drunk, texting and calling her while he was driving. This was approximately the third or fourth time this happened to her over the previous few months…”
The memo’s author even offered to produce evidence — telephone records, emails, text messages, videos and photos — to back up his claim.
“I am aware that Mr. MacKay continues to drink and drive and his conduct must be stopped in the name of public safety,” the memo concludes.
What happened as a result?
Andre Veinotte, the president of the association at the time and the person to whom the memo was sent, says he asked MacKay about it, “and he said it didn’t happen.” In an interview with allnovascotia.com, Veinotte claimed MacKay informed him the accusation was the result of a marital spat between “a husband and wife that were both on the board,” so he didn’t follow-up at all.
“I just want to reiterate that the premier had nothing to do with this.”
Somehow though, the allegations made their way later that same month to Laurie Graham, Stephen McNeil’s chief of staff, who was accompanying the premier on a trade mission to Europe at the time.
According to McNeil, Graham — who declined to answer reporters’ questions — didn’t mention the allegations to him. Instead, she carried out an investigation — supposedly, she spoke to MacKay and Lawless, whose estranged husband was apparently the author of the memo — and “determined [the allegations] had no credibility.”
Based on what we know, Graham never asked to see any of the evidence the memo writer offered to provide.
Perhaps we can assume MacKay told Graham — as he had Veinotte — this was just a case of a jilted ex-husband making false allegations to get back at his wife.
Perhaps we can assume Lawless said the same.
Perhaps we can assume Graham believed them.
Perhaps we can believe that’s why she didn’t mention the allegations to her boss.
But that explanation began to fall apart on the night of October 13, 2019, when MacKay was charged with drunken driving. Graham must have understood at this point there was more to the earlier story than MacKay and Lawless had told her.
And the whole sad story collapsed completely less than a month later when MacKay publicly claimed to the CBC he couldn’t think of “any circumstance” in which he might have previously driven drunk.
Graham knew better. Or, at the very least, she knew the allegations no longer could be characterized as having “no credibility.”
Still, she did not — again, so far as we know — tell the premier, or pass the memo on to the RCMP to investigate.
How do we know all this? Because someone leaked the May 2019 memo to Progressive Conservative leader Tim Houston, who made the issue the centrepiece of question period all week.
Stephen McNeil, as he so often does, went on a Trumpian counterattack, and he closed ranks.
He attacked both the memo writer for not taking his allegations directly to the police and also the PCs for tabling the memo in the legislature instead of turning it over to the police. Somehow, McNeil conveniently neglected to note the PCs had only learned of the memo last Monday night, by which time the RCMP had already charged MacKay in connection with the 2018 incident and MacKay had announced plans to sit as an independent. [MacKay has since pleaded Not Guilty to the charges.]
At the same time McNeil was castigating the opposition for not going to the police with the memo, of course, he was nothing-to-see-here ignoring the fact his own chief of staff had a copy of the same memo for nine months and never turned it over to police either. “I continue to have all the confidence in [Graham] and I support the judgement she made on this one,” McNeil declared to reporters on Thursday.
Hugh MacKay will be back in court to answer the latest charges on Match 16.
This column first appeared in the Halifax Examiner March 2, 2020.