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NWT premier faces inquiry over concerns his lover provided access to secret talks

YELLOWKNIFE - The premier of the Northwest Territories could lose his job if an inquiry determines a secret lover briefed him on the confidential discussions of opposition MLAs.

YELLOWKNIFE - The premier of the Northwest Territories could lose his job if an inquiry determines a secret lover briefed him on the confidential discussions of opposition MLAs.

The territory's conflict-of-interest commissioner has called for a formal hearing into a scandal that has been common knowledge around Yellowknife since last fall.

"It was a betrayal," said Dave Ramsay, one of six MLAs who asked Gerald Gerrand to examine the affair between Premier Floyd Roland and legislature clerk Patricia Russell.

Roland and Russell told Gerrand that their working relationship changed into "one of intimacy" sometime last September - although Gerrand notes that Russell's husband says she told him the affair began as early as last June.

At the time, Russell was clerk to several committees composed of MLAs not serving in cabinet. Under the territory's consensus-style government, there are no political parties and MLAs who aren't in cabinet function as a kind of opposition.

"We strategize like an opposition party," said Ramsay. "Having one of our staff members intimately linked to the premier should never have happened."

Fellow MLA Jane Groenewegen said committee meetings are used to talk about cabinet ministers and how well they're performing.

"People want to feel like they can come in there and vent and lay all their cards on the table," she said. "There was a lot of frustration expressed in that room."

Both Russell and Roland have denied any information was shared, nor did Gerrand find any evidence to suggest that.

But after Russell and Roland confessed to their relationship in mid-November, regular MLAs began to wonder if the clerk had told the premier about private committee talks. They wrote a letter to Gerrand outlining their concerns.

"In one meeting, the premier told Ramsay that he 'has information on all of us and he will use it,"' the letter says.

"On another occasion, the premier told (MLA Bob) Abernethy that he 'knows everything that's said in that room,' referring to Committee Room A where regular members meet."

Ramsay said the issue is not Roland's behaviour, but his judgment.

"I think the premier showed poor judgment in not getting her out of that situation," he said.

Gerrand seemed to agree.

"There clearly existed an unsatisfactory situation in late November 2008, respecting Ms. Russell's role. Committees and their members are entitled to be served by a principal clerk ... who has no emotional ties through a secret liaison with a member of executive council."

Russell declined to comment on the commissioner's findings. Roland also declined a request from The Canadian Press for an interview.

The inquiry is to be led by a single investigator, who has the power to call witnesses, receive sworn testimony and allow cross-examination. It may be held in public.

If Roland is found to have breached conflict guidelines, penalties range from a rebuke in the legislature to a fine to loss of his office and/or seat.

Russell still works for the territory, but is no longer based at the legislature.

She and Roland now live together. Both have spouses and children.

The conflict of interest inquiry is the second challenge Roland has faced to his leadership. He survived a non-confidence vote in both his premiership and his cabinet in February.

Four out of the last five premiers of the N.W.T. have faced some sort of attempt or threatened attempt to remove them from office. The only one who didn't was Jim Antoine, who served for 10 months in 1998 after Don Morin was forced out.

 
 
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