Mount Pearl North MHA Jim Lester violated the House of Assembly's code of conduct and should be reprimanded, for not doing enough to distinguish between his role as an elected politician and a farmer with a private business, according to a new report by the commissioner of legislative standards.
"When MHA Lester was interacting with government officials it was often difficult for them to distinguish between his two roles as a MHA and as a farmer," reads the report, written by Bruce Chaulk and released this week.
Chaulk says Lester violated the code of conduct by failing to arrange his private financial affairs in a matter that protects the public interest by establishing a blind trust to separate his two roles.
Lester should be reprimanded and should put his interests in a trust, according to the report.
Assistant deputy minister felt threatened
It was Gerry Byrne, at the time the minister of the Department of Fisheries and Land Resources, who initially requested Chaulk look into "a broad array of allegations against MHA Lester," reads the report.
Chaulk's report breaks out several complaints, one of which relates to Lester's interactions with assistant deputy minister Keith Deering. At the time, there was a program to make prime agriculture land available to commercial farmers. Farmers chosen would pay a non-negotiable lease fee.
In 2018, Lester filed an application, on behalf of Lester's Farm Inc., for the land known as the "MUN Woodlot."
However, in April, the department decided to cancel applications for the MUN Woodlot and decided to issue a Request for proposals for the land.
When Lester learned of the decision, he was "rattled," according to Deering.
"He talked about taking the department to court, but said that this would be a waste of his time and money," according to Deering, who is quoted in the report.
Deering also said Lester told him, "Let's see what happens after the next election." Deering said he felt his employment was being threatened.
A lawyer for Lester disputed that.
"Mr. Lester said that this was not meant as a threat in any way. He simply meant that if a new government was elected they might have a different view on the program which they were discussing," reads the report.
Chaulk didn't agree. He said Lester's interactions with Deering were "concerning" and violated the code of conduct.
Chaulk also took issue with Lester's insistence that a blind trust wasn't practical or necessary.
"[It] likely would have presented MHA Lester from placing himself in a position that is contrary to the code of conduct," says Chaulk in the report.
In his report, Chaulk stated Lester should apologize to Deering.
When asked about the report, and the apology on Thursday, Lester had this to say: "As a matter of apology, I have already discussed with ADM Deering both verbally, prior to the report being released, and I did apologize that he took some of my comments as threatening because that was not my intention."
Lester said he accepts the commissioner's findings, but seemingly stopped short of specifically committing to establishing a trust.
"When I got involved in politics, there was one promise I made to everybody in my district, and everybody in my family, my friends. I said, 'I will not who I change who I am,'" Lester said.
"So that does present a bit of a challenge but myself and the commissioner will work out some means of being able to satisfy his requirements."
Chaulk said Lester was "honest and forthright" during the inquiry.
"There was no financial gain by MHA Lester and no financial loss incurred by any third party."
On Thursday after question period, Byrne told reporters he hasn't read Chaulk's report in-depth yet, but said it's time to move on.
"Each and every member of the House of Assembly should be afforded respect and should give respect. It's why I did not raise these matters publicly before the commissioner could render an opinion and nor will I now say that I feel vindicated or that I feel disappointed.… I only wish the very best for MHA Jim Lester," Byrne said.
Separate incident didn't meet code of conduct violation
Chaulk also looked into a separate incident involving Lester. This one was with Dave Jennings, director of the province's agricultural production and research division, and had to do with the province's vegetable transplant program.
Jennings wrote Lester and said "a large percentage of transplants received by your farm were subjected to various forms of neglect, rendering them unproductive." That meant, for the following, year, Lester's Farm's eligibility for the program would be conditional. In subsequent emails to Jennings, Lester said, "I totally and univocally [sic] feel my rights have been violated, my reputation tarnished," and "I find your comments and assessment particularly offensive and disingenuous."
Chaulk called this incident with Lester "concerning" but said it didn't meet the threshold of a code of conduct violation.