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RCMP commissioner opens up about Nigel Wright case

RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson in 2012

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The RCMP explored "all of the corners and all of the shadows" of government before determining that the Prime Minister's ex-chief of staff did not break any laws by giving $90,000 to a sitting senator, Commissioner Bob Paulson has told The Globe and Mail.

In his first interview on the politically sensitive case, the head of the national police force confirms that investigators considered both the Criminal Code and the Parliament of Canada Act before deciding there was no evidence to lay charges against Nigel Wright for his secret payment to Mike Duffy last year.

While the RCMP generally do not discuss their investigations, Commissioner Paulson has decided to speak out now in answer to questions raised by the opposition NDP about why the force decided to drop the probe into Mr. Wright. He wants to make it clear that the RCMP did not close the investigation to favour the interests of the Conservative government.

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He says he accepts that some critics will always view the RCMP as a part of "the big machine" of government and never fully accept their findings. But he says that the overall trust of the public is the force's "most important commodity."

Commissioner Paulson promises the public will eventually get an unprecedented look at the conclusions of his investigative team, hoping that shining a light on the process will put an end to questions about the RCMP's independence.

"We suspected some illicit activity to have taken place. We have investigated that. We have considered the Parliament of Canada Act, considered the Criminal Code, considered every element of this thing," he says. "Our reasoning, our analysis and ultimately our conclusions will be available for people to beat around the bush."

The investigation was the biggest cloud hanging over Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the ongoing Senate scandal and was politically damaging for the Conservatives because it brought the crisis to the Prime Minister's doorstep, linking his top aide's actions to potential wrongdoing.

When the investigation into Mr. Wright was dropped, Conservatives were relieved. It was the first development that put some distance between the Prime Minister's Office and Mr. Duffy. One official described the mood as "champagne corks popping."

But the governing Conservatives, who have been dogged by the Senate expenses controversy for nearly a year, must still wait to see whether the Mounties lay charges against Mr. Duffy and Pamela Wallin, both Harper appointees to the Red Chamber. If Mr. Duffy is charged, the Tories risk a further public airing of the PMO's efforts to manage fallout from his spending record since the RCMP want Mr. Wright to testify if the matter goes to court.

Commissioner Paulson says the facts uncovered by investigators – many of which were publicly detailed in a politically explosive search warrant released last fall – simply did not lead to the conclusion of criminal wrongdoing. The ultimate decision to drop the investigation into Mr. Wright was made by the investigative team, he says, adding he was consulted on the matter along with prosecutors.

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"You've got to believe that there is an offence there. If you can't demonstrate or explain to another human that there is an offence there, then you've got nothing," he says.

Commissioner Paulson, who is 55 years old, was known as a straight-shooter when he became the top cop in Canada in 2011, but he has been largely quiet since he spoke out about a number of controversial issues in 2012, including allegations of widespread harassment in the RCMP.

"That is how some people measure my success, if I'm quiet," he says with a smile.

He says he emerged from his period of relative silence to defend the investigators in the RCMP's National Division, who have meticulously probed the expense claims of four senators and the payment from Mr. Wright to Mr. Duffy.

"People can question how many people are interviewed, how long it takes, whether or not a warrant was properly obtained, all of the mechanics of our police work," he says. "But not our integrity. And independence is a big chunk of that integrity."

He rejects the suggestion that the RCMP should have laid charges against Mr. Wright and simply let the court process determine whether he was guilty or not. "We just don't say: 'We can't figure it out, over to the courts, you guys figure it out.'"

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The bottom line for the head of the RCMP is that there is a paper trail to justify all of the actions undertaken in this case, and that Canadians will eventually be able to judge the work of the investigators who worked under the leadership of Superintendent Biage Carrese.

It remains unclear how the RCMP will release their documented findings, but Commissioner Paulson explains it could be done in a briefing, through Access to Information or in a court proceeding.

"The investigative team has done a very good job at exploring all of the corners and all of the shadows," he says. "Maybe we'll be judged in history to have been wrong, and it will be because maybe we weren't smart enough or didn't do something right. But not because we're crooked."

His 'rookie mistake'

In late 2011 and early 2012, Liberal Senator Colin Kenny sent Bob Paulson, the new commissioner of the RCMP, a number of invitations to have lunch. The commissioner refused to commit to a meeting with Mr. Kenny, who has long held an interest in military and policing matters. After some back and forth, the commissioner told Mr. Kenny to "route" his request through the Public Safety department.

Mr. Kenny released the e-mail chain to the public, fuelling the impression that the government was dictating Commissioner Paulson's agenda.

The reality was simpler, the commissioner says now, adding he should have said so from the beginning. "I didn't want to meet the guy," he says. "I wasn't following government orders."

It was, he says, a "rookie mistake."

The infamous income-trust probe

The RCMP have long struggled to appear impartial when they investigate the federal government, but the force came under fire during the 2005-2006 election campaign when it informed the NDP that it had launched a criminal investigation into the leak of the Liberal government's decision on the taxation of income trusts.

The announcement was widely seen as political interference by the RCMP, and led to new communications guidelines at the national police force.

Commissioner Paulson says that finding the right balance between openness and secrecy is always tricky. "You get in the goofy area of saying, 'The RCMP can neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation,' and meanwhile there is a picture of an investigator knocking on doors with a notebook," he says.

The key, he adds, is for RCMP investigators to eventually be able to justify every single decision taken as part of their "sensitive" investigations.

"What it does impose upon us … is that there be a written record of all of these decisions that are taking place, so that we are not vulnerable to the allegation that there is some sort of subterranean analysis going on that will never see the light of day," he says.

Remaining independent from government

The RCMP answer to the government of the day, while conducting their operations independently. Commissioner Bob Paulson says he has no problem handling the two responsibilities, but acknowledges that it is sometimes hard to explain the difference to the public.

"It seems to defy common understanding as to the relationship that a national police force might have with its government while being able to independently and reliably execute on its operational mandate. I think it's my fault, maybe, that I haven't done a good job at keeping those lines separate."

He says he has no problem explaining his administrative decisions to the government. "We're a $5-billion operation. It's not unreasonable that people are going to say: 'How are you managing that over there?' "

However, he also vigorously defends his operational independence, refusing to be characterized as a "a political appointee."

"Hang on a second … I have a regimental number, I'm a policeman. That illustrates the need to be responsive to a government's priorities and their interests in public-safety issues. But in terms of how I execute on those, that's me. I live and die on that. I'm prepared to live and die on that.

"With respect to any of these major investigations that are ongoing [in relation to the Senate], there is not a word, not a note, not a briefing, not a peep coming out of the government, nothing going to the government. That is sacrosanct in our world."

Lifting the veil

The RCMP don't traditionally go out of their way to explain its decisions to the public. Still, Commissioner Paulson says he remembers spelling out what had been done – and what couldn't be achieved – to the families of murder victims, especially in cases where no one was brought to justice.

"I have done that throughout my career. I have worked really complex organized-crime cases, serial-killer cases, serial-offender cases," he says. "In the past, I have walked people through the analysis, through the limitations. Where we are vulnerable to criticism, we need to be open."

That is how he is justifying his decision to eventually release the reasoning behind the RCMP's decision not to charge Nigel Wright, the former chief of staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, over his secret $90,000 payment to senator Mike Duffy last year. "We took particular effort to write separately why [we did] not charge him. That exists," he says.

The only thing he is asking for from the Canadian public is a bit of patience, given the legal sensitivities. The document could be released through Access to Information, a briefing or a court proceeding. "Any delay between making a decision and explaining to people what happened should not be interpreted as some sort of concealment," he says.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Daniel Leblanc studied political science at the University of Ottawa and journalism at Carleton University. He became a full-time reporter in 1998, first at the Ottawa Citizen and then in the Ottawa bureau of The Globe and Mail. More

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