Jay Chalke, meet Jim Comey. Chalke is B.C.’s ombudsperson. He was assigned, a little over a year ago, to investigate the firing of eight Health Ministry researchers in 2012. Chalke recently reported that his findings will be released no later than March 31.
What has that got to do with Jim Comey? Perhaps a lot.
Comey is head of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Last year, in the closing stages of the American presidential election, his office received a trove of emails that had been missed during an investigation of the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton.
In fact, the emails turned out to be innocuous. But their discovery trapped Comey between a rock and a hard place.
If he said nothing, and it became known after the election that the new material was incriminating, he would have been accused of a coverup. On the other hand, if he spoke out before the election, and the emails were later shown to be innocent, he could be accused of meddling.
The latter is what happened. Eleven days before the election he advised Congress that new information had come to light. Two days before the vote, after staff had gone through the emails, he reported they contained nothing of consequence.
As far as Clinton was concerned, however, the damage was done. After leading in the polls throughout the campaign, she lost the election.
Now let’s consider our own situation. B.C.’s general election is expected on May 9.
Historically, the writ has been issued up to 51 days in advance, although there have been shorter campaigns. The 2013 contest lasted just 28 days.
That puts the likely start point somewhere between March 20 and April 11. If the ombudsperson waits till the end of March to finish his investigation, as his timeline permits, he will either report out during the campaign, or in the days immediately preceding it.
Should that happen, the risks are apparent. If his findings are favourable to the government, some might treat that as an attempt to give the Liberal campaign a boost.
If his conclusions are critical, the complaint might be made that he gave the NDP a stick to use. Either way, his report takes on a significance it wasn’t meant to have.
There is no suggestion that Chalke would dream of taking sides. Indeed, the issue has nothing to do with his findings. He is free to rule as he sees fit.
The issue has to do with his timing. And here, he is a victim of circumstances.
When he accepted the assignment, he was told by government that 200,000 files would need reviewing. The final tally is closer to four million.
Chalke has made clear he sees nothing untoward in this. He is satisfied that no one was trying to delay his report by engaging in a file dump.
Nevertheless, though he might be justified in taking longer to complete the investigation, there are realities to consider.
Elections are gritty and angry affairs. They are not a time for cool reflection or generosity of spirit. Elemental emotions are let loose. Long-lasting grievances are kindled.
Chalke would do well to steer clear of all that. In practice, what does this mean?
Realistically, he cannot postpone his report until after the campaign is over. He is already committed to an earlier finish point.
His best option is to report out well ahead of his self-imposed deadline. If he releases his findings by, say, the middle of February, he’s likely on safe ground.
But anything much beyond that, particularly if the writ is dropped earlier than last time, and he might find himself in Jim Comey territory.