The Professional oyster shucker who pried a few pearls of troubling information about the Union Station renovation plan from the shell of secrecy protecting the municipal bureaucracy is threatening to sue the former judge who dismissed him as a "conspiracy theorist" in a recent report to city council. This could be fun.Seafood restaurateur Lawrence David says provincial integrity commissioner Coulter A. Osborne has until Tuesday (June 17) to retract certain statements in his 100-page review of the controversial process the city used to select a local developer for the $150-million project. If the retired justice hasn't withdrawn the offensive remarks and issued a written apology by the appointed date, David will launch legal action against him for libel and defamation of character. The oysterman (that's his job title) also wants council to say sorry and have the integrity czar's $40,000 editorial removed from the city Web site.
"The failings in Justice Osborne's report may have been forgivable or excusable had he not, in our opinion, essentially poked fun at a private citizen who made a request for information by calling him a conspiracy theorist," says Suzan Fraser, the lawyer who'll be representing David if his case has to go to the Superior Court.
"It is then that Justice Osborne leaves the category of a poor report and enters into the realm of what is, in our opinion, a defamatory report," Fraser advises. "It's going to be a long time before we see another person take on City Hall or at least make a request in a very public fashion, to say, 'What's going on here?,' because the next thing you know somebody like Justice Osborne is taking potshots at you."
It was David, after all, who last November submitted a request (under freedom of information guidelines) for documents related to the scoring process that a panel dominated by top bureaucrats used to pick mega-magnate Larry Tanenbaum and his Union Pearson Group partners as the best company to refit the historic terminal.
That request for info led to revelations that important scoring data had been shredded by a city lawyer. That little nugget grew into a tale of how the planning commish gave LP Heritage, the Union Pearson gang's U.S.-based competitor, sweet nothings in all the critical financial categories. Then it turned out that other documents concerning the imbroglio had been stolen from the office of the city's director of corporate access and privacy.
On and on and on it went. By the time all the excuses had been made, citizen groups like David's Save Union Station Committee and certain media commentators were howling about the shroud that enveloped a badly flawed selection process. And so it was that a council stacked with supporters of the deal finally decided to enlist the arbiter of what's good and decent behaviour at Queen's Park. They'd leave it to him to clear the air so they could get on with handing over the old Front Street railroad shack to the hometown consortium for safekeeping by departing mayor Mel Lastman's friends.
Well, Osborne gave the crowd at City Hall what they wanted last month. The evaluation process was imperfect but fair. The zero-based scoring system employed by planning commish Paula Dill was "a gross over-reaction" and "patently unreasonable," but she was "not corrupt." And Patricia Simpson - the municipal legalist whose destruction of the score sheets David wanted precipitated the integrity commissioner's freelance review - was the victim of human error. Yes, the lawyer made a mistake, but it was an honest one, Osborne argued.
He then turned his attention to the likes of David, whose name came up numerous times in the report. The oysterman, with all his suspicions about some plot to snatch Union Station away from the public, was clearly somebody who had to be dealt with. Osborne met with David twice during the course of his review. And the ex-judge had this to say about a fellow who once dreamed of taking his mollusc expertise to a comfy oyster bar tastefully located in a properly refurbished Union Station. "Lawrence David has suggested that there was something sinister in the manner of the preparation of the scores. That makes no sense to me."
Further on in his report the integrity commissioner wrote: "Anyone remotely familiar with the recent history of Union Station will know that mutating conspiracy theories are not in short supply." He then rejected "the suggestion made by some that the original score sheets were discarded after Mr. David filed his November 15, 2002, freedom of information request."
Those would be the "original" score sheets with all the zeros on them; not the first score sheets that had put LP Heritage ahead of Union Pearson Group. Of course, that was before Dill freaked out over business press reports that the U.S.company's financial backers were facing some difficulty.
"I know there are many who belong to the conspiracy camp and that nothing I can say will likely cause them to resign," Osborne declared. "Nonetheless, in fairness to those who suspect the worst, I should proffer some general comment on some of the conspiracy theories that I've heard.' And then he went on about David again. "His interest in Union Station is entirely genuine,' Osborne said. But he rejected David's suggestion that his review should have been conducted like a crime scene investigation. After all, no crime was committed.
"In my view, Justice Osborne's report is libellous and defamatory to me," David says. "I feel compelled to take action in response. I'm sorry, but I will not take prisoners," David says.
Councillor Doug Holyday says the threatened lawsuit is just "another attempt at a roadblock to prevent Union Station from getting underway." Holyday is chair of council's admin committee, which meets next week to discuss Osborne's report before a final decision is made.
The integrity commissioner has declined to speak about David's threatened lawsuit.
Says David, "Council referred the Union Station matter to Justice Osborne because the selection process lacked political legitimacy. I think it is odd and perhaps even perverse that of the four people who came in for a bit of a whipping (in his report), two of them actually had no executive power whatsoever in the process."
He's referring to himself and Rita Reynolds, the now former director of the corporate access and privacy office, from whom David learned the fate of the shredded score sheets. Osborne said Reynolds was "experienced, competent and hard-working," but not a team player. She was sacked by the city clerk two weeks ago and has since intimated that she, too, thinks the integrity commissioner's remarks were way out of line. You never know. This could end up as a group action.