The Speaker of the New Brunswick legislature plans to fight allegations of harassment “tooth and nail,” his lawyer said Monday.
T.J. Burke says Chris Collins is devastated that an allegation has been made against him, and believes it may be a political stunt intended to keep him from running for re-election in his Moncton riding in September’s election.
“We do believe that the person behind this may be politically motivated to prevent Chris from running in that riding again. Why else would a person sit on the allegations for more than two years?” Burke said.
He said Collins has been given no information on the nature of the allegation; Premier Brian Gallant has said only it involves a former employee of the legislative assembly.
“We don’t know whether the person is a male or a female. We don’t know whether this happened one year ago, two years ago, or three years ago. We don’t know if the substance of the allegations have any criminal content or civil content to it,” he said.
Collins, who has been suspended from the Liberal caucus, voluntarily relinquished his administrative responsibilities to the deputy Speaker on Monday morning. He has not commented publicly, and Burke said his client won’t be commenting until the matter has been dealt with.
The province’s Progressive Conservatives said Monday morning that a full public inquiry would be the best way to look into the allegations, and intended to seek one at a meeting of the Legislative Administration Committee later in the day.
Stewart Fairgrieve, the Tory member of the legislature for Carleton, said anything short of an investigation under the Inquiries Act would be a cover-up.
But after the meeting, Fairgrieve said he and other committee members had agreed to have an independent investigator look into the matter.
Victor Boudreau, the government whip, said the clerk of the legislature – with the help of the legislature’s solicitor – will choose the investigator and get the process moving as quickly as possible.
“I certainly can’t speculate on how long the investigator will take. We simply asked that it be done as quickly as possible,” Boudreau said.
Time is of the essence, as parties are all nominating their candidates for the Sept. 24 provincial election.
The nomination process for Collins’ riding, Moncton Centre, has yet to happen.
Gallant announced last week that Collins was being suspended from caucus, saying he had been made aware of potential allegations of harassment in February, but the individual only made the complaint last week.
Fairgrieve is questioning the premier’s handling of the matter.
“Other directives should have been taken,” Fairgrieve said.
He read from the government’s workplace harassment policy that says “managers are responsible to take appropriate preventative or corrective action and put a stop to any harassment they are aware of, whether or not a complaint is filed.”
While speculation is rampant about the nature of the harassment complaint and who may be involved, those details are being kept under wraps.
Boudreau said the complainant’s affidavit has been seen only by the clerk and solicitor of the legislature, and the investigator will decide who else needs to know the details.
Green Leader David Coon said he was uncomfortable making decisions in the Legislative Administration Committee meeting without knowing the details.
He said the committee operates in confidence and should have been given all the information.
Burke said Collins is prepared to fully co-operate with the investigation.
“We want to get to the bottom of these baseless allegations,” he said.
Collins was first elected to the provincial legislature in a 2007 by-election, after serving three years as a Moncton city councillor. He was briefly minister of local government under former Liberal premier Shawn Graham and was elected Speaker after the Liberals returned to power in September 2014 under Gallant.