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Sajjan, Deputy Minister dig a deeper hole for themselves on $337,000 “party flight”

David Pugliese, Ottawa Citizen Updated: November 13, 2018

Re-printed without permission.

Conservative MPs last week peppered Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan with questions about the now infamous December 2017 Canadian Forces “Team Canada” tour.

The tour, with VIPs who were supposed to boost the morale of military personnel deployed overseas, turned into a fiasco. Some VIPs on the RCAF flight to Greece and Latvia were drunk and abusive to the crew, in particular the military flight attendants. The VIP civilian passengers, including former NHL player Dave “Tiger” Williams were exempt from security screening before the flight, and some — already drunk — walked on to the Canadian Forces aircraft with open alcoholic drinks in their hands.

Two individuals were so drunk they were reported to have urinated themselves. Video taken aboard the plane showed people — including a staff member from Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Jon Vance’s office — dancing in the aisles of the aircraft with their drinks as a rock band played at the back of the plane. Others chewed tobacco, in violation of Canadian Forces rules, spitting the slimy juice into cups for flight attendants to clean up.

The crew felt they couldn’t do anything to put a halt to the antics as these very important people were Vance’s guests. Some military personnel have labelled the fiasco the “party flight” while some in the RCAF refer to the Dec. 2-3 2017 incident as the “Mardi Gras at 34,000 feet.”

Williams has been charged with sex assault and assault. He denies the charges. The alleged victim is a military flight attendant.

The $337,000 taxpayer-funded trip was planned by Vance’s office. Vance okayed the booze on the RCAF aircraft.

Conservative MPs James Bezan and Cheryl Gallant grilled Sajjan at the Commons defence committee last Thursday about what he knew about the flight and when. They questioned whether his department and the Canadian Forces tried to mislead the public and the news media, namely the Ottawa Citizen, about what happened on the flight.

Sajjan didn’t give a clear answer on when he found out about the problems on the aircraft but said his department and the Canadian Forces don’t mislead journalists. He noted that the priority for the DND and Canadian military is to ensure a harassment-free environment and helping victims of alleged sexual impropriety.

Jody Thomas, Deputy Minister at the Department of National Defence, told parliamentarians there was no attempt to mislead the Ottawa Citizen. “ Information was released as it became available,” Thomas said.

Not quite.

Here is the internal message that went through the DND and Canadian Forces when the incident happened in December 2017. It was obtained months later after the alleged sexual assault through the Access to Information law by Toronto Star journalist Bruce Campion-Smith. The Ottawa Citizen also received a copy.

Note that there is no mention about taking care of the alleged victims. But there is a message about concern over the news media coverage that might take place if journalists found out about what happened on the aircraft. “Reactive PA posture” means that no information will be provided to the news media unless they somehow stumble upon details of the incident.

Parliamentarians might ask Sajjan why this original message seemed more concerned about whether the news media knew about this incident, rather than about the welfare of the military personnel who had been subjected to alleged sexual impropriety.

Parliamentarians might also ask Thomas why her public affairs branch never told journalists about the second alleged sexual impropriety on that plane. Parliamentarians might want to question Vance, Sajjan and Thomas for further details of that second alleged incident.

Thomas has tried to portray her public affairs branch as being open and transparent releasing information on the party flight as it became available.

In reality, the Ottawa Citizen and Toronto Star received details about the wild antics on this flight from sources who had inside knowledge about the drunken junket. These individuals were disgusted about what went on and they were concerned the Canadian Forces was attempting to cover up the in-flight alcohol-fueled antics.

In fact, Assistant Deputy Minister of Public Affairs Chris Henderson informed Thomas and Vance shortly after military police charged Tiger Williams that he wanted to get to a point where the public affairs branch provided no comment (see message below). But two journalists continued to keep asking questions about the antics on the flight, he pointed out to the general and deputy minister. Those journalists are myself and Campion-Smith of the Star.

So what type of information did the Canadian Forces public affairs branch provide journalists? Here is a screen shot of the email that was sent to me by the public affairs branch when I asked in mid-February about the alcohol consumption on the plane.

So to recap. The VIPs, some already drunk, walked on to the Canadian Forces aircraft with open alcoholic drinks in their hands. A cooler full of alcohol was set up on a nearby seat so they could drink throughout the flight. And the senior military leadership knew in December about the booze problems that led to the junket spiraling out of control. The military had the full details about the booze-fest by the time I asked my question.

So why not give a straight answer instead of sending a line about participants who “enjoy a few beverages” just like on a commercial flight?

This DND email to the Ottawa Citizen also falsely claimed that the participants on the flight provided their own alcohol. The booze was provided by Gen. Vance’s staff. (One VIP did take on board his own bottle of rum in addition to the supplied alcohol).

In addition, Sajjan told parliamentarians last Thursday that the answer received by the Ottawa Citizen about the alcohol was provided through the Access to Information law and that the newspaper misinterpreted the answer. This is a false statement.

The answer (shown above) was a DND public affairs response to a question I asked about the drinking.

I later used the Access law to determine which individuals inside the DND approved the release of this emailed – and ultimately misleading – answer. As noted in an earlier article, Chris Henderson had a statement prepared. The Access to Information documents show he consulted with Vance and Thomas. He also informed a host of senior government public relations officials about what his branch intended to tell the Ottawa Citizen. Those individuals included Brig.-Gen. Marc Theriault, Col. Jay Janzen, Privy Council communications chief Ken MacKillop and Byrne Furlong who is on Sajjan’s staff.

The public now knows from reporting by the Ottawa Citizen in June 2018 that the flight cost taxpayers $337,000. That includes the $24,000 was paid by taxpayers to fly four flight attendants, including the alleged victim, home on a commercial carrier so they would not be on board the RCAF aircraft returning Williams and the other VIPs to Canada. In addition, accommodations, ground transportation and other expenses for this specific trip cost $48,000. The plane cost $11,531 an hour to operate and the round-trip involved 23 hours of flying, the RCAF confirmed, for a total of $265,213.

Below was the answer the Ottawa Citizen was originally provided with by DND in February when the newspaper asked about the cost of this flight.

In addition, other statements made about the “party flight” defy a credible explanation.

Among those is the statement by Gen. Vance, as he tried to make a case for the VIPs. “The band playing in the back of the plane, that’s some team-building for people who have never met soldiers before and are going to go into maybe a dangerous place,” Vance told reporters. “So, it’s not a Mardi Gras. It’s not a party. It’s a mission.”

Vance’s claim the VIPs had never met soldiers before is bogus. A number of the junket participants had previously been on other such flights where the taxpayer-funded fun seemed to be of a similar tone. Below is a photo of Tiger Williams on one of those earlier flights. He is the one with the beads stuck up his nose.

In addition, anyone who has been to the beautiful country of Greece knows that it is not dangerous. Neither is Latvia.

Then there is the processing of another Ottawa Citizen Access to Information request about the DND strategy to deal with the news media regarding the “party flight.” That Access request was submitted April 10, 2018 and by law the DND was required to release the documents by June 18. But the months dragged by with no release of the records.

On Oct. 10 the DND Access branch informed the Ottawa Citizen that those documents weren’t going to be released anytime soon. It should be noted that Deputy Minister Jody Thomas has responsibility for the administration of the Access to Information branch at her department.

I then asked the Access to Information branch whether Vance or Sajjan had a role in the delay of the Access request. No answer was provided but two weeks later the documents were released. Parliamentarians might want to ask Thomas (photo below) about the reason this Access material was illegally delayed.

Of course, it might be easy for some to dismiss all of this as yet another “inside Ottawa” story with few consequences for the average Canadian.

But is $337,000 for a drunken junket an example of tax dollars well spent? Thomas is helping oversee a budget of more than $20 billion of your tax dollars so it would seem that accountability and fiscal responsibility does matter.

In addition, Vance and Sajjan had key roles to play in the “party flight” and its aftermath. Lawyers in the upcoming trial of Vice Admiral Mark Norman may draw upon lessons learned from this episode when they examine the credibility of both officials in that case.


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