Lost cow ends in misconduct allegations for N.L. politician

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ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — A pregnant Scottish Highland cow’s four days on the loose from a Newfoundland farm in the middle of a snowstorm resulted in allegations of misconduct against a well-known politician and farmer.

A report released this week by Bruce Chaulk, the province’s commissioner of legislative standards, found Progressive Conservative Jim Lester, who’s known locally as “Farmer Jim,” violated the code of conduct for members of the provincial legislature.

“For want of a better word, I was more frustrated than alarmed that I did have to go through that process,” Lester said in an interview Friday. “But when you sign up for a position (as a provincial politician), life as you know it, I have found, quickly changes.”

In the report, Chaulk investigated “a broad array of allegations” against Lester made by Gerry Byrne, who was then the province’s minister of fisheries and land resources. The bulk of the allegations revolve around Lester’s interactions with fisheries and land resources staff who’d given Lester unfavourable news related to his farming business.

“I had an obligation to my staff to protect the staff,” Byrne said in an interview. “The senior staff had been feeling increasingly concerned about their interactions with (Lester.)”

The report says Lester had a “disagreement” with conservation officer Scott Martin, who gave him a written warning on Jan. 13, three days after Lester’s cow was brought safely back to his farm. The report includes emails from Martin saying Lester phoned him in February to say he’d written a letter expressing his displeasure with the warning and he wanted to give Martin a copy. Martin also said Lester claimed there was political motivation from Byrne’s department to punish him further for the errant cow.

“I feel like this matter has gone way outside of our normal procedures,” Martin wrote.

Chaulk said he did not find any breaches of conduct in Lester’s dealing with Martin.

But in April, when the department contacted Lester to let him know his application to lease a piece of Crown land had been cancelled, Lester did violate the code of conduct, Chaulk concluded. Lester told the assistant deputy minister who’d contacted him to “see what happens after the next election.” Lester then emailed him a few days later to suggest an amendment to his application.

“A reasonable person is left with the appearance that (Lester) was using his position . . . to further his private interest,” Chaulk wrote. He said Lester should apologize, be reprimanded and set up a blind trust so his farming business is kept clear from his political position.

In the report, Lester’s lawyer said his client did not intend to be threatening.

Lester said he has apologized to the assistant deputy minister — “I apologized for how he interpreted it,” he said in the interview — but that he’s not sold on the idea of a blind trust.

“I do have a big concern about how this may set a precedent and may be a forewarning to all small business owners prior to getting into politics, that if they have to step away from their life, which is their business, they may think twice about it,” he said.

Lester says he’s going to meet with Chaulk to figure out how to move forward.

As for Byrne, he said he’s willing to “extend the hand of friendship” to Lester and let bovine bygones be bygones.

And the cow, Lester said, has since given birth to a healthy calf and has had a great summer on the farm. “We’ll have an eye out for her so she’ll not get away this time,” he said.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 2, 2020.

The Canadian Press

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