12 September 2011

Williams set to offer comms director plum patronage job before he quit #nlpoli

williamsletterIn his final days as Premier, Danny Williams was poised to offer Elizabeth Matthews  - his communications director – a plum patronage appointment at the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board.

A copy of a draft letter for Williams’ signature, included in a package of information released under the province’s access to information law, bore the date “December 2, 2010”.  It concluded:

It is with pleasure that I offer you the position of full-time vice-chairperson of the C-NLOPB, upon expiry of the term of office of the incumbent.  Should you accept this offer of employment your appointment would take effect on January 1, 2011 for a term of six years in accordance with applicable legislation.

e-mailThe letter turned up in the package as an attachment to an email exchange between officials of the Cabinet Secretariat at 10:00 AM December 3.

Williams’ last day on the job was December 3. The letter was never sent, apparently.

Usually, officials prepare a letter making a job offer of this type only after senior officials in the Premier’s Office have reviewed the appointment and discussed it – even if informally  - with the prospective appointee.  There would be no reason to draft such a letter unless the appointment was finalized.

CBC Provincial Affairs reporter David Cochrane broke the story of Matthews’ appointment on March 2, 2011, some three months later.  He didn’t indicate when the provincial government had made the decision to put Matthews forward. It doesn’t appear Cochrane knew.

Natural resources minister Shawn Skinner issued a brief statement the following day confirming that the provincial government had nominated Matthews.  Skinner didn’t attach any dates to the decision. 

The Liberal Opposition did put dates on it. 

On March 11, Opposition Leader Yvonne Jones issued a news release that included a letter from Skinner to his federal counterpart, Christian Paradis.  The date on the letter was December 21.  It included a three-paragraph biography for Matthews.

In a brief news release later on March 11,  Skinner confirmed the letter to Paradis had been sent.

Due to a gaffe in the Liberal office, the Liberal release went out originally without the letter attached. Before the Liberals had a chance to send out the letter, Cochrane posted a comment to Twitter:

(March 11) “Where are you getting this from? Feds tell me her appt isn’t finalized at all…I spoke to Matthews directly. She says she is not on the board….EM says she has never been told of any appointment. Do Libs have draft letter never sent?…Skinner says they nominated EM in January…”. [Emphasis added]

That claim – that Matthews “had never been told of any appointment” - became a key element of the story in subsequent days.  In hindsight, another part of that comment now stands out as well:  “Do Libs have draft letter never sent?”

Matthews withdrew her nomination on March 14.  In a prepared statement, Matthews made no  mention of the discrepancies in versions of events surrounding the appointment.  She blamed her decision on efforts by Liberal leader Yvonne Jones to politicize the issue of her appointment.

In a scrum with reporters the next day, Skinner apparently picked up on the idea Matthews had no knowledge of the appointment.  He told reporters that an unspecified breakdown in communications led to a situation and as a result, Matthews apparently didn’t know about the appointment.

CBC’s online story of Skinner’s comments began with this sentence:

A communication breakdown left Elizabeth Matthews in the dark about her appointment to an offshore petroleum board late last year, according to Newfoundland and Labrador's Natural Resources minister.

It included Skinner’s comment:

"I signed the letter. I sent it off and I assumed that the rest of it would have happened as it should have happened, but I'll find that out. There was a communications breakdown in that regard," Skinner said Monday.

The Telegram version of the scrum appeared on March 16.  It included a comment from Matthews that she “received an [Order in Council] in the mail in January at which point I contacted the Premier’s Office to inquire about its contents.”

That’s not exactly the same as saying she had “never been told of any appointment”, as Cochrane tweeted on March 11. 

Matthews’ comment to the Telegram is vague about whether or not she’d known of the appointment before she got the letter in January.  At the time, some might have interpreted her Telegram comments to mean Matthews had been surprised to receive the letter in January and called the Premier’s Office for an explanation.

Existence of a draft letter for Williams’ signature addressed to his then-director of communications as well as the document trail released to the public changes all that.

The package of documents containing the December 2 letter also contained an e-mail exchange between Matthews and the chief of staff in the Premier’s Office and the chief of staff and the deputy minister of natural resources in which Matthews’ forwarded a copy of her resume.

The date of the e-mail exchange was December 21.

Cabinet met the same day to decide on Matthews’ appointment to the offshore board, among other things. 

Cabinet Secretariat issued an order in council, left,  as the official record of the decision. 

Elizabeth Matthews’ name is on the distribution list for the order.

That’s also the day Skinner wrote his federal counterpart advising of the Matthews appointment.

- srbp -