Premier Stephen McNeil says his chief of staff Laurie Graham not only kept him in the dark for months about serious drunk driving allegations against former Liberal MLA Hugh MacKay but that she dismissed the accusations after speaking to only MacKay and his constituency assistant.
“It was the right decision,” the premier said on Thursday. “Yes, it was.”
The Chester-St. Margaret’s MLA, who pleaded guilty to drunk driving in November, resigned from caucus Sunday after being charged again for drunk driving back in 2018. Houston produced details of the alleged Nov 22, 2018 incident - involving MacKay crashing his silver GMC in Tantallon - at Province House on Tuesday.
For the third straight day, Houston hammered the premier regarding a May 6, 2019, email from an unnamed member of the Chester-St Margaret’s Liberal Riding Association written to the group’s president, claiming the board was covering up the incident and the author could “no longer keep the incident was hidden.” In the note, the former association member quit the board, claiming to have witnessed MacKay crash his vehicle while heavily intoxicated.
The premier said he learned about the allegations from Graham on Tuesday. Graham wouldn’t make herself available for comment, but the premier said she conducted an informal investigation questioning MacKay and his constituency office assistant about the alleged incident. Both denied that the incident happened. That’s where the investigation ended.
The former riding association member claimed to have discovered MacKay in New Ross very intoxicated and drinking vodka in his silver GMC sport utility vehicle. The member described a chase along Highway 12 to Highway 103 before the former MLA ended up in Tantallon where MacKay allegedly crashed into a light pole. The email's author said he brought a very drunk MacKay back to the MLA's home.
The premier couldn’t say whether Graham ever urged board members to go to the police with whatever evidence they may have had. Nor would he confirm that Graham ever saw the email. He said she made a number of calls but “there was no basis or foundation” for the incident. He continued to make the argument that the author of the email should have gone directly to the police.
MacKay publicly admitted he had a drinking problem after his most recent drunk driving incident this past October. McNeil said that was the first time he was made aware of his addiction and the premier supported his decision to seek treatment.
While Houston and NDP Leader Gary Burrill stopped short of calling for Graham’s resignation, both said they would fire their own chief of staffs if such serious accusations were not passed on to them.
The author of the email claimed to have evidence of the incident, including telephone records, photographs, and video. The email said MacKay continued to drink and drive after that incident.
Burrill said Graham’s response to the allegation "fell well short given the detail in the correspondence." He said more of an effort should have been made to gather the alleged evidence.
"It is an incomplete effort that we have seen so far, which does not meet the standard of thoroughness and conduct from the premier’s office."
Liberal MLA and former Mothers Against Drunk Driving Canada President Margaret Miller spoke about the affair for the first time after being absent from the legislature on Wednesday. Miller’s 26 year-old son died as a result of a drunk driver In 2004.
She said she had never seen the letter outlining the allegations but defended Graham’s investigation.
“From what I understand and the information that she had at the time she made the best decision possible," said Miller. "We don’t know if he did anything. We don’t know if this is valid, we have to see in court.”
Pointing to the premier’s reputation for secrecy, Houston said Graham’s informal investigation was a deliberate attempt to sweep the alleged "incident under the rug" and protect the Liberal brand at the expense of MacKay’s health and the public’s safety.
"The email was clearly trying to cover this up, so why wasn't there a formal investigation," said Houston. "There’s a major problem with the premier’s team."
Susan MacAskill, chapter services manager for Mothers Against Drunk Driving in the Atlantic region, wouldn’t comment on the Liberals handling of the allegations. But she said the matter deserves serious investigation.
"It is a concern to MADD Canada and these are not incidents that have just surfaced that are past behaviours from years ago," said MacAskill. "It’s during the time that Mr MacKay has been in public office. It’s in direct conflict with laws of our province that as an individual member of caucus he has been involved in approving the legislative regulations for road safety that involve impaired driving."