Jun 232012


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Rod MacIvor/Postmedia News files

Rod MacIvor/Postmedia News files

Yves Côté in 2007 when he was ombudsman for the Canadian Forces. He is the new Commissioner of Canada Elections, overseeing the robocalls investigation.


With the complex and politically charged robocalls investigation still underway, Commissioner of Canada Elections William Corbett has retired and been replaced with a former justice department bureaucrat.

Since last year’s election, Corbett has been overseeing the probe of fraudulent pre-recorded calls and misleading live calls reported by voters in 200 ridings across the country. It is believed to be the largest investigation the commissioner’s office has ever conducted.

But in a surprise announcement Thursday, Elections Canada said Corbett has retired and been replaced by Yves Côté, the former associate deputy minister of justice.

A former officer with the Judge Advocate General’s office, Côté was appointed as ombudsman for the Canadian Forces in 2005. When he left that post, Esprit de Corps magazine wrote that Côté “made it clear that he was not going to take the high-profile, often-adversarial towards the chain-of-command stance of his predecessor,” Andre Marin.

Côté issued reports critical of the military, complaining in one report that “the Canadian Forces continue to treat military families like second-class citizens,” but on Thursday Esprit de Corps publisher Scott Taylor described Côté’s time as ombudsman as disappointing.

“Unfortunately he failed to maintain the same sort of profile for the office which Marin had laboriously built as the inaugural incumbent,” said Taylor. “While it is true that Marin had raised the bar quite high, Côté passed well below it during his tenure.”

In December 2007, halfway through Côté’s mandate as ombudsman, Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed him as associate minister of justice, where he worked closely with Justice Minister Rob Nicholson as the government prepared Bill C-10, an omnibus bill that imposed mandatory minimum sentences for many crimes, including marijuana cultivation.

People familiar with Côté’s career described him as low-key and competent, safe and methodical but not a fighter.

Politically dangerous investigations have a long history in official Ottawa of posing challenges to investigators and prosecutors, and prosecutions in the uncharted waters of telephone voter contact could put pressure on Elections Canada.

Given that Côté was unwilling to make waves during the tumultuous period in which he served as the CF ombudsman, it is unlikely he would be willing to swim upstream against the political current in his present post

Taylor, who was a close observer of Côté during his tenure at the Canadian Forces, expressed doubts on Thursday about his willingness to tangle with powerful interests in the robocalls investigation.

“Given that Côté was unwilling to make waves during the tumultuous period in which he served as the CF ombudsman, it is unlikely he would be willing to swim upstream against the political current in his present post,” he said.

Elections Canada denied that the change in mid-stream would affect the robocalls or related investigations.

“There will be continuity,” said spokesman John Enright. “There is a new commissioner but the work of the Office of the Commissioner continues. It’s not going to impact their work at all.”

Chief among Côté’s responsibilities will be to decide what charges, if any, he will refer to Director of Public Prosecution Brian Saunders over the robocalls allegations.

By law, the commissioner of Canada elections is appointed by the chief electoral officer, not by Parliament or cabinet. Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand chose to use a competition process to fill the job, the same way many public service jobs are filled, with applicants assigned points for various qualifications.

It was up to Mayrand to decide how to fill the job, Enright said.

“The process that was chosen was a competitive public process based on merit, the same way you would appoint any other senior official.”

Elections Canada said the job opening was published in the spring. The text of advertisement specified someone with significant experience with legal or regulatory decision-making, but made no mention of investigative experience.

“The successful candidate must have proven experience in handling sensitive and complex matters,” the ad said. “He or she must be able to build and maintain effective relationships with parliamentarians, senior government officials and other stakeholders.”

Corbett led the five-year investigation into the so-called “in and out” scandal, the Conservative Party’s scheme to shuffle the costs of $1.3 million in radio and TV ads between its national campaign and local candidate campaigns to avoid spending caps in the 2006 campaign.

Four Conservative party officials, including senators Doug Finley and Irving Gerstein, were charged in the case, but those charges were dropped last year, when the party pleaded guilty and paid $52,000 in fines.

At the time of Côté’s appointment, Corbett’s staff were also investigating allegations of election financial impropriety in the 2008 election by Conservative MP Dean Del Mastro, the prime minister’s parliamentary secretary and member of the House of Commons ethics committee.

Corbett’s going-away party was held Wednesday. Côté begins work July 3.

Enright said Corbett wasn’t available to speak publicly about his role.

“Interviews at this time are graciously declined,” he said.

Postmedia News and Ottawa Citizen

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