In The Media

Off-the-books notes between vice-admiral and shipyard boss in 'legal grey zone,' expert says

by Murray Brewster (feat. David Perry)

CBC News
April 27, 2017

The devil, they say, is in the details.

That well-worn cliché can be applied in equal measure to criminal investigations, corporate contracts and defence procurement deals.

The public has, over the past four months, been starved of the details in the case of Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, an extraordinary and significant bit of political theatre where all three of those interests intersect.

The release this week of a second tranche of unsealed information contained in the RCMP search warrant for Norman's home is undeniably a watershed in the story of the investigation into alleged leaks of cabinet secrets.

But it's also an important moment in the more than three-decade-long career of an officer who was — by all accounts — popular, competent and clearly opinionated.

The court records lay out in black and white the RCMP's claim that Norman deliberately leaked cabinet information.

While the Mounties consider his conversations suspect, they were unable to say — definitively — that he handed over a secret cabinet memo outlining government concerns about the planned $668-million project to lease a supply ship to the navy.

Investigators paid a lot of attention in the search warrant to the unsanctioned back channel email exchanges between Norman and Spencer Fraser, an executive at Federal Fleet Services Inc., which is partnered with Quebec's Chantier-Davie Shipyard.

The lease plan, championed by Chantier-Davie, was opposed both by rival Irving Shipbuilding in Nova Scotia and by bureaucrats within the Defence-Public Works establishment who believe the project undermines the national shipbuilding strategy.

Those government officials are referred to in the email exchanges as "The Knights of No."

Case and career hinge on details

The devil is, indeed, in the details.

The back channel dialogue between Norman and Fraser is significant, and it's not an overstatement to say the entire case — and the admiral's career — could hinge on those details.

In the summer of 2015, Federal Fleet Services signed a letter of intent with the Conservative government, on the eve of the last election.

They agreed the company would get a sole-source contract and lease a supply ship to the navy, but the details were to be negotiated.

It was binding in the sense that should the government change its mind there would be an $89-million cancellation penalty.

Dave Perry, senior analyst for the Canadian Global Affairs Institute think-tank, says companies under contract are entitled to a slightly higher level of access to government officials and a more direct information pipeline.

But the letter of intent is not a final contract, and therefore, it allows Federal Fleet Services into the federal government tent, but only so far.

"They were in a legal grey zone, I guess," Perry said.

He said the recent court ruling that unsealed the search warrant, and the warrant itself, seem confused on the status of the arrangement.

And there's the rub with Norman.

The courts might ultimately be called upon to decide whether the contents of the emails included "leaked" cabinet secrets.

Since the RCMP applied for a warrant to search Norman's home, electronics and phone, it's a safe bet they didn't have enough evidence to charge him with a crime.

Four months after the search, the Mounties have yet to make a move.

The peril of going outside the system

Regardless of the criminal case, did Norman cross a line by having a back channel? And, did he share too much in those exchanges?

Analysts and former federal officials say the answer to those questions is: Yes. And yes.

"I've never seen that happen," said Alan Williams, who ran the purchasing branch of National Defence in the early 2000s. "So, that's why I think it's inexcusable and, frankly, stupid."

There was a time, many years ago, when such kibitzing between the head of the navy and a shipyard executive was to be expected as projects got underway, said Ken Hansen, a former naval staff officer.

"Apparently, what [Norman] doesn't understand is that process has changed and it's not for him to circumvent process. He can complain, officially. He can raise objections, but he cannot go outside of this system," said Hansen, whose public complaints about the project irked Norman to the point where he asked Fraser to discredit the analyst.

Hansen said he believes Norman was frustrated with the system and didn't believe Public Works bureaucrats, or politicians for that matter, could deliver the ship the navy needed.

And then there are Norman's complaints about his political masters and his salty words about the alleged political interference of Halifax-based Irving Shipbuilding, which, Norman believed, wanted to kill the program for its own competitive, corporate reasons.

Norman's lawyer didn't answer a request for comment. The RCMP responded but said it wouldn't comment on an ongoing investigation.

Jordan Owens, a spokesperson for Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, wouldn't address questions about Norman's remarks — or their potential impact on the relationship with Irving, which is under contract to build the next generation of navy frigates.

But Owens did say the government is "working with partners at Irving Shipbuilding Inc. to ensure value for money for the duration of this long-term strategic sourcing relationship."

In light of the caustic — and often profane — email exchanges that are now public, Dave Perry wonders if there is any way back for the officer once touted as the next chief of the defence staff.

"With all of this water under the bridge, I can't imagine there hasn't been damage to his career."

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