Brunswick News crafted 'false narrative' of Larry's Gulch scandal, ex-official says

A former senior adviser to then-premier David Alward says that Irving-owned Brunswick News Inc. constructed a "false narrative" about the events surrounding a 2013 guest list at the Larry's Gulch fishing lodge.

Darell Fowlie told a judge that he never altered the guest list but was only trying to correct a mistaken reference to an editor at Brunswick News.

"I fixed a mistake," he said.

But he said his attempts to get the newspaper company to correct or retract its version of what happened were met with silence.

Fowlie said he contacted the Brunswick News ombudsperson Patricia Graham after she published her first column on the issue in February 2015.

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"I was named as doing some very nefarious things that I hadn't done and I wanted to tell her my side of the story," he said.

But he said Graham and Brunswick News editor-in-chief Patrick Brethour weren't interested.

"The false narrative that they put out that day — they didn't want to have any of the facts that I wanted to give to them," he said.

Fowlie was summoned to testify by lawyers representing former Times & Transcript managing editor Al Hogan.

Hogan is suing Brunswick News for wrongful dismissal. He was fired when the paper's top editors learned in 2015 that his assistant managing editor, Murray Guy, accepted a free trip to the government-owned Larry's Gulch fishing lodge from NB Liquor.

Fowlie's testimony is the first time he has spoken publicly about the guest-list controversy.

Guest list mistakes

In a series of columns published in BNI newspapers, Graham said Guy's trip violated the company's rule against journalists accepting gifts. She also said Hogan had not been truthful in telling managers what he knew about the trip.

Graham also wrote that Guy and Hogan asked Fowlie to alter the guest list to conceal the fact Guy had been there.

But Fowlie said in court Tuesday that he was trying to remove the reference to where Guy worked, because he was there as a private citizen and not as a newspaper employee. 

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He said it was one of around 30 mistakes on several lodge guest lists from the summer of 2013 and it was normal for officials to correct them. 

As deputy minister overseeing communications in Alward's office, Fowlie said he was often consulted on contentious right-to-information requests, including annual requests for the Larry's Gulch guest list.

Fowlie also said because NB Liquor paid the higher private-rental rate to book the lodge, it was entitled to be treated like a private company booking the facility. In those cases, guest lists are not made public. 

That version was debunked by a report in 2015 by then-information commissioner Anne Bertrand. 

The report concluded that even if NB Liquor was paying the private rate, it was a publicly owned Crown corporation subject to the right-to-information law and had to disclose its guest list.

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She said Fowlie and another deputy minister, Greg Lutes, had been "circumventing" the act by arranging for NB Liquor to request the change.

"It was more important to say 'yes' to a friend to do him a favour than to uphold one's legal responsibility and rely on good judgment in refusing to do so," Bertrand wrote.

Bertrand said it was a violation of the Right to Information and Protection of Privacy Act to alter documents, but she did not recommend charges. 

'There is an explanation'

In court, Brunswick News lawyer Catherine Lahey challenged Fowlie's rationale for how he handled the guest list, telling him Bertrand had "rejected" his version. 

"There is an explanation though," Fowlie said.

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When the judge told him to answer yes or no, Fowlie said, "Yes, but it was quashed." He said Bertrand's report is no longer publicly available but did not explain the quashing.

Lahey pushed back: "She did not accept your explanation."

"Correct," Fowlie answered. 

Earlier in the trial, the court was told that in October 2013, Guy misled Hogan by telling him he had not actually been to Larry's Gulch that summer.

Former managing editor John Wishart testified Tuesday morning that he learned a month later that Guy had been at the lodge, and he told Hogan to tell Guy he should not go there again. 

"I remember the call taking place," Wishart said. "The response [from Hogan] was either 'Consider it done' or 'It's already been done,' or something like that."

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That contradicts Hogan's statement of claim, which says he continued to believe Guy hadn't been to the lodge until February 2015, when the media podcast Canadaland began investigating.

In Fowlie's testimony, he said he believed that he was acting within the bounds of the right to information law, which allows people to request that their personal information be corrected.

But during cross-examination, Lahey pointed out the act lays out a process for that, and Guy didn't follow it, instead contacting Fowlie directly.

Deleted 'irrelevant' part of email

Late in the afternoon, Hogan himself testified and repeated his claim that he still didn't know Guy had actually gone to Larry's Gulch when Brethour started his internal investigation in 2015. 

"I was telling him 'the list is wrong because Murray didn't go and the list was corrected.'"

Brunswick News is arguing its reason for firing Hogan was that he misled the company about Guy's trip, including by altering a key email from colleague John Wishart that he turned over to Brethour.

Hogan said he "attempted to summarize" the email and "got rid of the irrelevant part" when he sent it to Brethour. 

Hogan's direct testimony will continue Wednesday and then he'll be cross-examined by Lahey.