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Melnick done in by lie to legislature: premier

Contributed to her being punted from cabinet

Christine Melnick apologized last week.

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Christine Melnick apologized last week. (WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES)

PREMIER Greg Selinger admits he punted Winnipeg MLA Christine Melnick from cabinet, in part, because she lied about her involvement in a decision to invite immigrants and service groups to a debate at the legislature last year.

In a year-end interview Tuesday, Selinger said he did not know of Melnick's deception until after the provincial ombudsman launched an investigation into a senior bureaucrat's handling of the affair.

Ben Rempel, an assistant deputy minister working under Melnick, the immigration and multiculturalism minister, sent out hundreds of invitations to attend a legislative debate on April 19, 2012, concerning Ottawa's plans to wrest control of federally funded immigrant support services from the province.

Melnick denied directing Rempel to issue the invitation when asked about it at the time by Opposition MLAs. But she later admitted to it to acting ombudsman Mel Holley, who issued his report last week.

Selinger said Tuesday he learned only during the ombudsman's investigation "there may have been an issue where (Melnick) may have misrepresented some of what happened in her statements to the public."

He denied this was the main reason Melnick was punted from cabinet during an October shuffle, but admitted it was a factor.

"The primary focus of the cabinet shuffle... was to focus our agenda on jobs and the economy and to give some new ministers a chance to perform and a chance to grow into the job," the premier said. "Many factors go into a decision on who stays in or out of cabinet. And that is one of the many factors that may have been considered as part of this decision."

Selinger said he did not clear the air earlier because he was awaiting the ombudsman's report.

"We wanted the ombudsman to bring it to a conclusion. Unfortunately, that report took longer than expected, 18 months," he said.

The premier said he did not speak directly with Melnick on the matter, only through officials.

"My officials, my senior staff talked to the minister and encouraged her to fully respond to the ombudsman's request for information and to be fully open with what happened, and she did that," he said.

The ombudsman launched the probe after a member of the public filed a complaint that Rempel had "crossed the line" of impartiality expected of civil servants. The report found the civil servant did not breach the Civil Service Act or the Manitoba Civil Service Commission Values and Ethics Guide. But it said the debate over the bureaucrat's action left little doubt that "this matter brought the question of civil service neutrality to the forefront."

Rempel's email to government-funded agencies encouraged people to attend the debate, even if it meant taking the afternoon off work. It had a spectacular effect, as more than 400 people packed the public gallery and an overflow room.

Selinger did not reveal Tuesday when he learned Melnick directed her official to issue the invitation.

But the Tories, quoting from Hansard, said Tuesday the premier was still laying responsibility for the email at Rempel's feet a few weeks after the event. On May 2, 2012, Selinger told MLAs the bureaucrat "acted in the belief that he was doing what was in the best interests of all Manitobans."

Melnick issued a short written apology last week in which she said: "The explanation I provided in the house did not properly convey the direction I had given."

 

-- with files from The Canadian Press

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

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