Grant Devine, alternative facts and the Tory caucus fraud scandal

POLITICS by John F. Conway

“When it comes to the crime of fraud, single mothers who, out of desperation, cheat on welfare, have most often gone to jail… Impoverished family breadwinners, who, also out of desperation, cheat on unemployment insurance, have most often gone to jail… [Some] who illegally obtained money from the government… by means of false expense claims have gone to jail, though not all.”  —Queen’s Bench Justice Ross Wimmer upon sentencing Michael Hopfner, former Tory MLA and Caucus Whip, for fraud to 18 months in jail and a restitution order of $56,000.

You may have noticed that former Tory premier Grant Devine has returned to public life. On July 27, just a few weeks before announcing his own retirement from politics, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall appointed his old mentor to the University of Saskatchewan Board of Governors.

Given the present financial mess at the U of S, you might question the wisdom of appointing a former premier who left the province an economic basket case upon his defeat in 1991. One might also worry about his management skills — after all, many of Devine’s people ended up convicted of fraud and/or breach of trust. Following the fall of the Devine government, 14 of Devine’s selections for cabinet and senior caucus positions pleaded guilty or were convicted at trial, and five of them received jail time.

So you might think that Operation Fiddle, as the RCMP dubbed their investigation into the elaborate fraud scheme hatched by those in charge of the Tory caucus office, was very, very serious business.

Well, according to the “alternative facts” of Grant Devine, that is just not the case. “A whole bunch of it was nonsense,” Devine assured us in an Aug. 1 StarPhoenix interview.

One might be surprised by Devine’s words. After all, here in “fact-based reality”, we will never know exactly how much money was misappropriated by the fraud scheme. Investigators and prosecutors estimated it was between $1 and $2 million, but the investigation was hampered: the four numbered companies incorporated to issue false invoices to the government for services never rendered were dissolved after the 1991 Tory defeat and their records destroyed. Similarly, all Tory caucus office records were destroyed.

Further complicating things, the funds were largely distributed as cash for expenses and cash bonuses: $240,000 in thousand-dollar bills was recovered from two safety deposit boxes under the name of Fred Peters, an alias used by caucus communications director John Scraba; and $455,000 appeared in the individual bank account of a Tory MLA, $69,000 of which was never recovered.

Given the destruction of the records of the numbered companies and the Tory caucus office, the investigation was limited to chasing paper trails left by payments by the government finance office to individuals and the numbered companies. Also, some of those charged became witnesses for the prosecution.

At the end of the day it looks like the fraud scheme involved rather large sums of money. The total remains a mystery.

Not so, according to the alternative facts provided by Grant Devine: “It was a couple of hundred thousand dollars, so it wasn’t a lot of money,” he said.

Apparently, the RCMP, the army of prosecutors, the juries and the presiding judges at the trials got it all wrong. Of course, Devine makes no mention of numbered companies and safety deposit boxes rented under a false name. That might seem like a glaring omission, but it was really not that elaborate, he suggests.

“We pooled the money so that they can [buy] advertising,” he explained. “And if you weren’t careful about which account [you used] you took from the wrong pool. Well, a whole bunch of it was nonsense.”

So there you have it: we finally have the real alternative facts of the so-called fraud scheme. It was just a matter of a few accounting errors! “

What a relief. Finally, the truth is out. And the victims of all this? Certainly not the public whose funds held in trust by the government for running the province were ripped off.

According to Devine, the real victims were those charged and convicted.

“They were charged and then they were found guilty of taking it out of the wrong funds,” says Devine. “It caused heartbreak. It caused a lot, a lot of pain for people who didn’t deserve to be treated like that.”

So shame on you, RCMP. Shame on you, prosecutors. Shame on you, judges. In this new era of Donald Trump, the “alternative facts” about Operation Fiddle have finally been revealed … by newly appointed University Of Saskatchewan governor Grant Devine. ❧

John F. Conway is a University of Regina political sociologist.


Learning To Fiddle

For those seeking an alternative to Devine’s “alternative truth,” the following are recommended: Gerry Jones, SaskScandal: The Death of Political Idealism in Saskatchewan (Saskatoon: Fifth House, 2000 and J. F. Conway (me), “The Devine Regime in Saskatchewan, 1982-1991: The Tory Caucus Fraud Scandal and Other Abuses of Power,” in Susan C. Boyd et. al., (editors), [Ab]Using Power: The Canadian Experience (Halifax: Fernwood, 2001, pp. 95–109). The quote of Justice Wimmer is from Jones’ book, p. 184.