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“My grandfather said to me one time, he said ‘Jim, if you have cows, you’ll have troubles,’” Mount Pearl North MHA Jim Lester said Thursday.
Lester has been found in violation of the MHA code of conduct after an investigation by Commissioner for Legislative Standards Bruce Chaulk.
In early January, conservation officers with the Department of Fisheries and Land Resources were alerted to a cow at large near Cochrane Pond Road and the Trans-Canada Highway. Due to a snowstorm, it took a few days to find and locate the cow, but when it was tracked down, it was returned to Lester’s Farm on Pearltown Road in Mount Pearl, the family business run by Lester.
As a result of the incident, Lester was issued a warning ticket by the department.
According to evidence presented by conservation officer Scott Martin, Lester was angry about the ticket, as he alleged the ticket was issued under political pressure from then- Fisheries and Land Resources Minister Gerry Byrne, who would later make a complaint to Chaulk that led to the Lester Report.
In an email to his supervisors, Martin described feeling pressured by Lester.
“I feel like this matter has gone way outside of our normal procedures. This situation is bringing forth politics into a non-partisan matter where a peace officer is conducting his or her duties,” read the email, presented as evidence through Chaulk’s investigation.
“Furthermore, I feel like we have been put under a microscope and my practices picked apart. I am confident I am conducting myself in a proper and professional manner and this file is closed in my opinion. Anymore contact to myself by Mr. Lester will be directed to (Byrne’s office).”
In another incident, assistant deputy minister Keith Deering described an interaction with Lester after an application Lester filed for the lease of Crown land known as the “MUN Woodlot” was denied. Instead of leasing to Lester, the department would instead go ahead with a general request for proposals for use of the land.
Deering had an exchange with Lester, which concluded with a statement from Lester that Deering found to be threatening.
“His final comment to me (in this conversation) was that he was going to have to sit down with his family, who were already facing a difficult year, and give them this bad news and then let’s see what happens after the next election,” reads evidence in the report.
Deering later qualified that while he was clear the statement was not directed to him specifically, he did feel threatened by Lester’s comments.
Another incident between Lester and director of agricultural production and research division Dave Jennings is also described in the report.
Lester had applied for his farm to be a part of the 2020 vegetable transplant program, after participating in the program in 2019. Lester was informed by Jennings that his re-application would be made conditional, after the department found the farm not to be compliant with subsequent inspections of the property and vegetables.
Lester disagreed with the assessment, and after multiple emails and phone calls were not returned, he reached out to Jennings on social media in an attempt to have his concerns heard.
In this matter, Lester, through legal counsel, alleged further political pressure to keep him out of the program.
“Mr. Lester also stated that he was informed that officials within the department were told not to talk to him. This is consistent with his actions which could be expected of a minister who was openly and publicly hostile to Mr. Lester,” wrote Lester’s lawyer Jerome Kennedy, in response to questions from Chaulk.
“While it would have been preferable that Mr. Lester not deal with Mr. Jennings the way he did it was also inappropriate for Mr. Jennings to refuse to answer Mr. Lester’s emails and phone calls. While Mr. Lester may have acted out of frustration he did not breach the Act or Code of Conduct.”
Chaulk did not find any violations of the MHA code of conduct with relation to his interactions with Martin or Jennings — but did find a violation of Section 5 of the code of conduct in relation to his interactions with Deering.
“When MHA Lester was interacting with government officials it was often difficult for them to distinguish between his two roles as an MHA and as a farmer,” reads the report.
“The failure of MHA Lester to arrange his private financial affairs in a matter that protects the public interest by establishing a blind trust or other administrative mechanism to separate his role as a farmer versus his role as an MHA, has resulted in a finding of a violation of the Code of Conduct.”
Chaulk recommended a reprimand for Lester, to apologize to the House of Assembly, and to establish a trust to allow him to conduct his business as a farmer and an MHA more separately.
Lester says he has reached out to Deering to apologize for the interaction and says he accepts the findings of the report.
However, Lester did not commit to establishing a business trust, saying he wishes to discuss the matter further with Chaulk.
“We will see. When I got involved in politics, there was one promise I made to everybody in my district and everyone in my family and friends: I said I will not change who I am. That does present a bit of a challenge, but I’m sure myself and the commissioner some means to be able to satisfy the requirements,” said Lester.
Previously, Lester was alleged to have blocked a hallway at the House of Assembly, preventing former Premier Dwight Ball from passing after a disagreement. Despite the previous incident and the statements that the assistant deputy minister felt threatened by Lester’s comments, he says he doesn’t believe his temper has gotten the better of him.
“I don’t feel I have a temper problem. It was not — I’m sure ADM Deering would be able to confirm that I was not overly aggressive. He did feel threatened by my comments, but they were not actually directed as a threat to him,” he said.
Gerry Byrne, now minister of Immigration, Skills and Labour, says he hopes he and Lester can move on and repair their relationship. In the Winter 2019 sitting of the House of Assembly, Byrne had accused Lester of breaking the law, an allegation that Byrne later had to stand and apologize for in the House of Assembly.
“Each and every member of the House of Assembly should be afforded respect and should give respect. It’s why I did not raise these matters publicly before the commissioner could render an opinion. Nor will I now say that I feel vindicated or feel disappointed or any emotion whatsoever,” said Byrne.
“I only wish the very best for MHA Jim Lester and want to extend a hand to work with him.”
Lester says he hopes his relationship with Byrne can move forward.
“There is no doubt that myself and (Byrne) have had disagreements in the past. There’s no doubt we’ll have disagreements in the future,” said Lester.
“But in relation to this matter, as far as I’m concerned, this has been addressed and dealt with.”