Mitchelmore investigated for Carla Foote hiring, whistleblower report finds wrongdoing

Cabinet minister Christopher Mitchelmore violated the provincial government's code of conduct when he hired longtime Liberal staffer Carla Foote to a vacant position at The Rooms and jacked up the salary.

That's according to a report by the Office of the Citizens' Representative, a public body tasked with investigating whistleblower complaints.

The investigation started last winter — after Mitchelmore fielded a daily barrage of questions from journalists, but before The Rooms CEO Dean Brinton was cut loose with compensation and a confidentiality agreement.

The finished product — dubbed "the Mitchelmore Report" — has not been released yet, but CBC has reviewed a copy of the report.

The investigation found Mitchelmore told Brinton about the plan to hire Foote after she was already offered the job. 

And according to the board of directors at The Rooms, Premier Dwight Ball is the one who ordered the hiring.

In a brief statement to CBC News, Ball denied any involvement in the controversial hire.

Rooms execs felt handcuffed by hiring

It started with a phone call.

It was Sept. 21, 2018, and Brinton was in his office with the executive committee of The Rooms when his phone rang. 

The Rooms, a provincial Crown corporation, is Newfoundland and Labrador's largest museum, art gallery and archive.

It was Mitchelmore on the phone, then minister responsible for overseeing The Rooms, and his deputy minister, Ted Lomond.

CBC

Everyone left the room. When they came back a few minutes later, Brinton told them Foote was being hired to fill the vacant marketing director position and that it was Ball who had offered her the job.

This was the first time Foote's name had been brought up with regard to the position. She was never interviewed.

A few days later, the deputy minister called a member of the executive committee at The Rooms to ask if they were on board with Foote's hiring. They told Lomond it was a mistake and it would have negative consequences for The Rooms.

The report says the executive committee felt hamstrung by Foote's appointment, since it was ordered by the premier himself.

Salary increased after 'executive' added to title

In the months following Foote's hiring, Mitchelmore and Ball both faced tough questions on the optics of hiring the Liberals' communications director for a marketing job at The Rooms.

"I made the determination that Carla Foote was deemed the most qualified person to fill the role," Mitchelmore told reporters outside the House of Assembly in late October 2018.

Both Mitchelmore and Ball repeatedly referred to the hiring as a "lateral move," since Foote's salary would remain the same as her former position at $132,000.

While that is technically true, the citizens' representative found it wasn't the whole truth.

Prior to Foote being hired without competition, the job had been publicly posted but no permanent hire was made. At the time, it carried a salary of $105,000.

The report was critical of Mitchelmore for increasing the salary by $27,000 so it would be on par with Foote's compensation at her former job.

At a board meeting five days after the first phone call, a board member expressed concern about the salary being bumped up to an executive level. It made the salary for another position, the director of museums and galleries, seem too low.

The next day, both positions were officially elevated to the executive level.

Mitchelmore later said Foote's position was changed to an executive level because it encompassed a larger range of duties than the non-executive marketing director role.

CBC News obtained Foote's hiring forms last winter, which showed the "rationale for staffing" section was left blank.

This came after Ball campaigned on a promise to remove politics from government appointments. He was also questioned about his friendship with Foote's mother, longtime Liberal and current Lt.-Gov. Judy Foote.

Ball insisted Foote was hired because of her qualifications for the job. When it was first posted, the position called for a university degree, which Foote does not have.

However, Ball praised her skills as the director of communications for his government, and said she had previous experience working at marketing firms.

Ex-CEO remains silent

Nine months after Foote was hired, Brinton was removed as CEO of the The Rooms, a job he'd held for 15 years.

Despite repeated questions, nobody within government ever gave a rationale for his dismissal. Officially, his contract was terminated without cause and he was given 11 months' salary as per the terms of the dismissal clause in his contract.

That came to $147,550 before benefits were factored in. He was also given an undisclosed amount for legal fees.

Brinton has never spoken publicly about his dismissal, or his thoughts on the hiring of Foote.

CBC

The next step for this report will be the Office of the Citizens' Representative handing it over to the Speaker of the House of Assembly, Scott Reid.

The citizens' rep only does investigations — it does not hand down punishment, or even suggest what appropriate punishment would be. 

The report said the speaker should engage Bruce Chaulk, the commissioner of legislative standards, to decide what, if any, punishment should be delivered.

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