In an interview with Chronicle-Herald reporter Michael Lightstone last month, HRM councillor Dawn Sloane revealed that, four years ago, a local developer offered her a roll of bills in a private meeting. After the story ran, further coverage revealed that two other HRM councillors had been offered bribes during their tenure, all by local, as yet unnamed, developers.
As “bad news” stories go, this is actually sort of a good one. The headline: Councillors turn down bribes. In today’s political and corporate climate, some SuperCitizens might find it refreshing to hear about not just one, but three public officials actually doing the right thing. It’s almost heartwarming.
But then the bad news sinks in. Bribes just don’t offer themselves. Apparently, there are developers out there who are under the impression that it’s OK to go around fishing for corrupt politicians who might help their business case. It’s not. The Criminal Code (section 123, Municipal Corruption) is pretty clear that the crime is in the offer of the bribe, regardless of the follow through. It only makes sense. If it’s illegal to catch a fish, then it’s illegal to go fishing.
Trouble is, how do you catch a crooked developer? In HRM, it appears, you don’t. No one at the Public Prosecution Office can remember a charge of bribery of a municipal official getting brought up in the past 30 or so years, according to spokesperson Chris Hansen.
Certainly Dawn Sloane’s brush with a seedy developer didn’t result in charges or even an investigation. Neither did councillor Jim Smith’s. There’s no way they could have, because neither councillor reported the crime to the police. “It was my word against another person,” says Sloane. “There were no other witnesses. At that point in time, a new councillor, bringing an allegation like that, do you think anyone’s going to listen to me?”
Councillor Len Goucher was offered a bribe in 1989 when he was a councillor for the town of Bedford. “I handled it very, very appropriately,” says Goucher. “I gave them the answer they should have gotten, which was an emphatic ‘no.’ I had a witness with me at the time who knows exactly what happened. We took the appropriate action to advise the appropriate people.” Goucher won’t say who the appropriate people were at the time. “I don’t want to get into dragging anyone else into this,” he says, exasperated. “It’s over and done with. Sixteen years ago.”
Currently there are no guidelines in place for councillors faced with such situations, and there’s some contention as to the appropriate course of action. Sloane says in future she will go directly to the police. “Hindsight’s 20/20,” says Sloane. “I would certainly not handle it the way I did. I would go to the police immediately. I would make sure I had my facts documented correctly.”
Goucher disagrees. “I don’t think you should be going to the police ,” he says. “You should be going to the CAO and your legal people. If they feel there’s justification to approach the police then you should go to the police.”
Not surprisingly, police spokesperson Mark Hobeck recommends reporting. “In general, not just with respect to councillors, what we recommend is that if people feel an offense has been committed, even if they’re not sure it’s an offense, it should be reported right away and let someone follow up on it,” says Hobeck. “That’s really the best advice for anyone.”
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