Coffey break: top N.L. bureaucrat's position became 'untenable,' premier says

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Bern Coffey debacle damaged integrity of public service, says former top bureaucrat

Premier Dwight Ball says Bern Coffey's position as Newfoundland and Labrador's top civil servant became "untenable" because it took him too long to shed his private-practice legal clients.

But Ball indicated that he had no regrets about hiring Coffey as clerk of the executive council.

"I would do it over again," Ball told reporters Monday morning.

"The only regrettable thing, I guess, is that we just couldn't get to what would be a reasonable transition period."

He cited Coffey's experience and reputation, and stressed the importance of getting the right people for top government jobs.

"It was my understanding that the transition from private practice to public service would be completed in a reasonable amount of time," Ball said.

He had expected the process to be wrapped up by June 30.

"However, in light of several meetings with Mr. Coffey over the course of this past weekend, it has become clear that a full transition would take longer than expected. This is an untenable situation for both myself and Mr. Coffey, and as such Mr. Coffey has tendered his resignation."

2 lawsuits filed against government agencies

Coffey's resignation — announced late Sunday night in an email to reporters from the premier's office — came after days of questions about potential conflicts of interest involving his private legal work.

More than a week ago, the business news website Allnewfoundlandlabrador.com reported that Coffey was involved a wrongful dismissal case launched by a former employee of Crown-owned Nalcor Energy.

CBC News revealed Monday morning that Coffey was involved in a second lawsuit filed against a government agency.

Coffey represents a surgeon who has sued Western Health. That court action alleges abuse of power, and seeks damages. It was filed the same day Coffey accepted the job as top civil servant last September.

'Conflict walls' established, premier says

Ball told reporters Monday that Coffey informed him he had seven active files when he took the job as clerk. That list has since shrunk, the premier added.

He indicated that the only active cases involving government agencies were the Western Health and Nalcor matters, adding that the Nalcor case had to be filed because of a deadline and Coffey would not represent the client in court.

Ball acknowledged that he only became aware of the Nalcor statement of claim through the media.

He stressed that the onus was on Coffey to disclose any potential potential issues, and "conflict walls" were established to avoid problems.

Coffey will not receive a severance payment, the premier said.

'People are outraged': Paul Davis

The opposition parties, meanwhile, weren't buying the message Ball was selling.

Progressive Conservative Leader Paul Davis called the situation "completely not acceptable" and a "complete misstep by the premier on a very, very important subject."

Davis noted that the story broke in the press more than a week before Ball publicly spoke about it.

"It was a case where they got caught doing something they should not have been doing," the Tory leader charged.

"I've never seen such a response from people all over the province — clear response from people all over the province — on a single issue like this before. And people are outraged," Davis said.

"The premier was put in a corner where he now finally had to deal with it. And he stands here today, and continues to defend the circumstances, defends Mr. Coffey, and says he would do it all over again. That's a big concern."

NDP Leader Earle McCurdy also referenced the premier's comment about doing it over again.

"So that sounds like really saying it's unfortunate we got caught here," McCurdy said.

Ball's explanations were "pretty lame," the NDP leader added.

"I can't imagine how the premier thought it would be OK to have the senior civil servant in the province — a person who runs the public service, who is boss over deputy ministers, who reports directly to the premier himself — to be involved in court actions against the government that he's supposed to serve," McCurdy said.

"Just not acceptable."