THE GENERAL IN HIS LABYRINTH
His military rank is a mere courtesy and his B.C. college hasn't a single student. How did Robert E. Lee Goodwin III persuade Canada's defence chief to accept an honorary fellowship, snag a medal from the governor-general and finagle his way into Stephen Harper's office? Colin Freeze investigates
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- Chapter 1: The man in the picture with Stephen Harper
- Chapter 2: A registered coat of arms, and a rented stainless-steel mailbox
- Chapter 3: A college that ‘will live on in perpetuity’
- Chapter 4: ‘Chasing manhood’ in the U.S. military
- Chapter 5: A self-proclaimed outsider in a world of ‘good ole boys’
- Chapter 6: Political connections, a Jubilee Medal and an honorary degree
- Chapter 7: Astronauts in its ranks, and UPEI on its wish list
- Chapter 8: A general of a different sort, ‘only a phone call away!’
The man in the picture with Stephen Harper
In Canada's Parliament, the prime minister inhabits an oak-panelled room on the third floor of the Centre Block. This chamber is occasionally visited by foreign dignitaries – Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela, Margaret Thatcher. A photograph posted online shows that a man with a memorable moniker was once given an audience there, too.
In 2012, "Retired General" Robert E. Lee Goodwin III took the opportunity to shake Stephen Harper's hand. Later, the transplanted American bearing the name of a Confederate general wrote that he also gave Mr. Harper a commemorative coin representing his vision of a school he was starting in Vancouver.
You may never have heard of New Westminster College, but Mr. Goodwin has been touting it as a future global hub for studies in cybersecurity, intelligence and diplomacy. In fact, he has been waging a multifront charm offensive on behalf of his brainchild. And the office of the prime minister was but one theatre of operations.
The campaign kicked off after – for reasons best known to himself – Mr. Goodwin rolled into Vancouver nearly five years ago. Boasting four-star military credentials, he blitzed the political establishment: joining the Conservative Party, working as an aide to his local MP, convincing a former Liberal deputy prime minister to sit on his board.
He also began cultivating connections to Canadian Forces commanders, including the man who is now Canada's top general. After that, he set out to build an international coalition, drumming up support for his school from as far away as Macedonia, Morocco and the republic of Georgia.
Along the way, the Canadian government awarded him a medal as an acknowledgment of his good work. And now, Mr. Goodwin is seeking partners to offer executive courses whose tuition would be $70,000, while also vowing to set up satellite campuses abroad.
And yet, nothing is as it seems, according to a Globe and Mail investigation.
New Westminster College is no one's alma mater. In its current incarnation, it has no students, no building. It operates online only, and as a virtual fellowship factory at that – pumping out ceremonial titles for already-accomplished people.
And its founder was never really a general, at least not in the United States Army, from which he was discharged as a teenaged private four decades ago. His is a convoluted tale, part smoke-and-mirrors mystery, part international intrigue. It is a case of a would-be educator trading on honorary military titles bestowed upon him by three American states – the way Kentucky made a colonel of fried-chicken titan Harland Sanders.
Barry Stentiford, a U.S. military historian, reviewed records about Mr. Goodwin obtained by The Globe. "This guy," he concluded, "is the king of getting actual recognition based on hot air."
A registered coat of arms, and a rented stainless-steel mailbox
Since coming to Canada, Mr. Goodwin has fired off hundreds of Internet press releases that document his life. None of them detail events of much consequence, and he and his college remain obscure. Yet if you pick these claims apart, they seem to speak volumes about the credulous nature of Canada's political and military establishment, the power of flattery, and the deference paid to dubious titles.
New Westminster College, whose Latin motto translates as "Truth and Liberty," has not granted a single degree, but claims to have handed out nearly 400 honorary fellowships. The college offered to make General Jonathan Vance, now the Chief of Defence Staff for the Canadian Forces, a distinguished fellow – and he accepted. It did the same for retired major-general David Fraser, formerly in charge of NATO troops in southern Afghanistan. Lieutenant-General Alain Parent, until recently the No. 2 commander at NORAD, lists the honour on his LinkedIn profile.
The fellowships have also proved globally popular, coming from a Canadian enterprise that sounds venerable but doesn't oblige anyone to do anything beyond accepting an unsolicited accolade. Its fellows now also include military figures hailing from the United States, Britain, Spain and Norway, as well as a former prime minister of India and past president of the Philippines.
There's a pro-forma style to each announcement, which Mr. Goodwin publishes on his college's website. He congratulates the recipient under a masthead topped by a coat of arms that he officially registered in Ottawa. Often, but not always, the recipient is quoted saying thank-you in the laudatory language of press releases. Mr. Goodwin's notion of fellowship is fluid – the college suggests some of its fellows also serve as the school's governors, directors and professors.
None of Mr. Goodwin's claims about his college and its fellows should be taken at face value. Consider the case of a foundational fellow, a former Canadian deputy prime minister whose 2012 appointment gave subsequent picks a greater degree of confidence in the school.
Back then, "Professor Sheila Copps," as she is called on the website, was quoted saying she was "honoured and very impressed" to become part of New Westminster College. These days, she is not so effusive.
"I joined and there was no follow-up," she said in an interview. The former Liberal MP from Hamilton explained that she simply accepted a title offered to her from out of the blue. "I thought it was an accredited college in British Columbia," she said.
Of Mr. Goodwin, whom she has never met, she added, "I know he has some former military background, but that's all I know."
Ms. Copps said she is no more enlightened about the school's workings these days, even though New Westminster College claims her as part of its oversight body: "Once I agreed to sit on the board of governors, I never was convened to any meeting."
Provincial education regulators also appear to have been left out of the loop.
The college's website states that any course it offers in B.C. would charge less than $1,000 for tuition and involve fewer than 40 hours of coursework. Those are the thresholds that would trigger interest from provincial regulators, meaning that – as if by design – the college flies under the radar of B.C.'s Private Career Training Institutions Agency. "New Westminster College is not PCTIA-registered," said Debbie Roche, a spokeswoman for the regulator.
Being based in the illustrious-sounding Vancouver suburb of New Westminster has also helped build an aura. Yet the paperwork filed at city hall is more mundane. There, a form shows the school has paid a $170 fee to operate under a general municipal business licence. Everything the college does is summed up in a single word – "services" – and its local address turns out to be a rented stainless-steel mailbox on Sixth Street.
JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL
A better-known address for the college is a suite in Canada Place, a gleaming complex overlooking the harbour in central Vancouver. But its unit is a small, shared office space where a receptionist answers calls for dozens of unrelated companies whose principals are all somewhere else.
"We're an office-solutions company," she said, as she took a message.
Turns out, the founder of New Westminster College was 2,000 kilometres away.
A college, currently without students, that 'will live on in perpetuity'
It was a sunny September afternoon outside Chula Vista, a San Diego County city just a short hop from Tijuana. From the highways winding through mesas and valleys, you could see the sun glistening off the ocean surf. You could also spot a Chevy with Canadian plates outside a small bungalow. The Globe approached Mr. Goodwin there because it had been otherwise difficult to reach him.
"Is New Westminster College a real school, and are you a real general?" were the first questions put to him. Nearly 60, bald, with a deep, commanding voice, Mr. Goodwin was dressed in shorts and a golf shirt and seemed somewhat rattled to see a Canadian reporter show up out of the blue. But he agreed to sit down at a nearby burger joint. The conversation lasted two hours.
Public-record searches suggest that San Diego has been Mr. Goodwin's home base for most of his adult life. It's a place he periodically leaves but always seems to boomerang back to after stints in other U.S. states and Canadian provinces. Mr. Goodwin insisted that he was merely vacationing in California and would imminently return to Canada to relaunch the school. "I don't like to interview in short pants on a nice relaxing day," he said. But he told his story anyway.
"We don't have a physical campus. Nor do we have any students," he conceded. But he stressed that New Westminster College was still in its embryonic phase, and that no one should dismiss all the outreach he has been doing.
"Countless hours, over 8,000 hours, of my life is in that website," he said, explaining that it takes him up to 20 hours to recruit a single fellow. Put yourself in his shoes, he said. "Just try to get a general, an admiral, a surgeon, an astronaut, a president, a prime minister – try to get any of these people to share your vision when you don't have any classrooms."
His college may have no buildings, but he employed a construction metaphor to describe why he has been offering so many fellowships: "A lot of the last four years has been laying a proper foundation, and framework." Just as a house needs a platform, a college needs a base of credibility.
As a newcomer to Canada, Mr. Goodwin didn't have that himself, and so he has been assembling a dream team of fellows to burnish his school's reputation: politicians, academics and military brass. He expressed the hope that everything else – students, investors, accreditation, bricks and mortar, degree programs – will follow.
We were speaking about his grand plans in Big Kahuna's, a tiki-themed bar and grill tucked in a strip mall and starkly decorated but for the stylized surfboards on the walls. "Once I'm gone, it will live on in perpetuity," he said of his college, adding that, some day, maybe 50,000 students a year will take courses there.
But to date, no one has paid any tuition. "Let me clear this up for you," said Mr. Goodwin. "New Westminster College has not generated one penny of revenue in four years … All the licensing, all the website design, curriculum development, all the recruitment has been paid for by Robert Goodwin."
'Chasing manhood' in the U.S. military
Before long, the conversation turned to the fraught question of his military record, which The Globe had already obtained through the U.S. Freedom of Information Act. It tells the tale of an underaged teenager who enlisted in the army in 1972, a month after the Watergate break-in. He was discharged in 1976, as a private first class, still not yet 20 years old.
"My exposure to the military was so total, that was the one thing I wanted to do," Mr. Goodwin explained.
He said, in fact, that his destiny had seemed sealed at birth, when his military-minded family named him for the famous Civil War general. Describing himself as an army brat, he recalled being raised by a drill-sergeant dad busy with hustling other people's sons off to Vietnam. The recruits became his idols, and he signed up the first chance he got. He had just finished Grade 10.
"I was chasing manhood," Mr. Goodwin said, wistfully. "I lied about my age. I admit it."
LEWIS ARMY MUSEUM
LEWIS ARMY MUSEUM
As an aspiring infantryman and paratrooper, he never really got off the ground. He blames a "Mae West" – an evocative term for what happens when a suspension rope crosses the parachute's canopy mid-jump, causing a brassiere-like shape in the sky, and the soldier to plummet. "That was only the second jump. … You have five jumps before you earn your wings." The crash-landing sent him to the hospital – and ultimately truncated his army career. "So that's that."
The record does show that Mr. Goodwin tried to mount a comeback a few years later. He enlisted in the navy in his mid-20s, but that service lasted only 10 days. Six months after that, he took a run at the marines, but that fizzled even faster.
The record didn't go into details, but Mr. Goodwin said he was injury-prone and had to face facts: "I got to a point where I'm too old to enlist or become a commissioned officer." But he is philosophical about his dashed dreams: "I don't need medals. I don't need titles … I don't need ornaments for the Christmas tree."
He went to universities in San Diego and San Francisco, studied business, got married. But he was always left with a sense of unfinished work. And his military dreams were not dead, just dormant. He was pushing 50 when he was finally anointed a four-star general.
A self-proclaimed outsider in a world of 'good ole boys'
A 2004 proclamation from a politician put Mr. Goodwin in nominal charge of keeping the Mississippi River safe from terrorism. At least, here's how the text of the Appointment Order reads: "Since the attack on America on Sept. 11, 2001, the State of Missouri and its organized militia … have been increasingly required to meet the demands of maritime and homeland security." That gubernatorial edict then gave Mr. Goodwin "the military rank of a four-star general" and authorized him as "the Commanding General of the Missouri Naval Militia."
It may seem surprising that a landlocked state would be home to a naval militia. There actually had been such a force, but it was scuttled in 1947. But state militias retain a vestigial constitutional role in protecting the United States, and figures known sometimes as "Kentucky colonels" and "Nebraska admirals" are shorthand nods to that.
Some states do maintain volunteer forces – but they are wholly distinct from those controlled by the Pentagon or National Guard. In other states, governors merely dust off old military titles to pump up the egos and résumés of friends and constituents. That was the case with Colonel Sanders, who was kicked out of the U.S. Army as an underager at 16 but was then made a state-commissioned military officer in midlife; his governor, Ruby Laffoon, found Kentucky Fried Chicken finger lickin' good.
It's not clear whether Mr. Goodwin ever lived in Missouri. The state's governor of the day retains a vague memory of signing an order promoting a man he didn't really know. "My sense is it was done for the self-prestige of the individual and nobody saw any real harm in doing it," Bob Holden said in an interview.
Known colloquially in his state as "One Term Bob," Mr. Holden added that the Missouri Naval Militia exists only on paper. "It wasn't like he was going to be put in charge of anything …"
Missouri wasn't the first state to bestow brass on Mr. Goodwin. Records show that between the late 1990s and early 2000s, he volunteered as a military adviser in South Carolina and Alabama – becoming, in turn, a two-, three– and four-star general.
Some flattering accounts of this service survive. Politicians in the South Carolina legislature stood up on three occasions in the early 2000s to publicly praise Mr. Goodwin's "nearly 30-year military career." Different politicians gave similar speeches years apart. One of them is now a fellow at New Westminster College.
There is also one unflattering account. During the week of the 9/11 attacks, the Gadsden Times in Alabama published an offbeat news feature about Mr. Goodwin. Its headline accused him of "posing as a general."
State Senator Gerald Dial, quoted in that piece, remembers the controversy well. There had been a swearing-in ceremony in the basement of the state capitol; Mr. Dial was sitting in the second row. An unfamiliar figure in a general's uniform took his place in the audience, looking to Mr. Dial as if he hailed from the Pentagon.
It was Mr. Goodwin: A few months earlier, State Executive Order No. 48 had made him a lieutenant general in the Alabama Defense Force.
"A three-star general came in and sat down by me. Now, I'm pretty reverent to doing all the proper protocol. You can imagine me seeing a three-star, how impressed I was," Mr. Dial said in an interview with The Globe.
But while he gave the newcomer plenty of respect, the senator couldn't get him to say where he was from.
His suspicion aroused, Mr. Dial stormed into the governor's office immediately after the cerermony to ask questions. "They said, 'We just made him an honorary.' I said, 'Well he didn't act like an honorary … He's not authorized to wear that uniform, and if I see him again I'm going to have him arrested and put in jail.'"
In the U.S., state-commissioned generals rarely get much respect from other servicemen. Mr. Dial, who had spent 36 years in the National Guard, contends that stars that arrive via a governor's proclamation simply don't count. "It looks nice on a wall," he says, "but that and $3.40 will get you a mocha at Starbucks."
Mr. Goodwin sees things differently.
He noted that the executive orders signed by state governors had given him the legal right to wear the uniforms. He said he took his state service so seriously, that he even attended professional military-education courses that officers from federal forces attended; but that, unlike them, he had to pay his own way in.
"I had to buy my own uniforms," he said. "And pay my gas to go. So please don't dismiss my volunteerism as strictly ceremonial, because it gives a misjustice to what I've done with my life."
As for the headline he had inspired in Alabama, he dismissed it as a controversy invented by National Guardsmen who were simply envious that a newcomer to the state had gotten more stars than they had.
"It was the good ol' boys circling their wagons," he said, "and they did not want to let an outsider in."
Political connections, a Jubilee Medal and an honorary degree
In October, as The Globe stepped up its questions to people associated with Mr. Goodwin, he called the newspaper to ask why he was being targeted in a "manhunt."
"When is it okay to attack a newcomer with a new vision of something that's never been done before?" he asked.
Told that people might well want to know a bit more about him, Mr. Goodwin said that what they should know is that he doesn't lie, misrepresent facts, or do anything unlawful. "My commissions are legal, bona-fide state commissions," he said. He added that his LinkedIn profile is clear, and that he can't help it if some of his fellows don't understand U.S. military distinctions. "It's not my fault if people do not do their research."
What follows is The Globe's research into Mr. Goodwin's Vancouver years, pieced together from documents and interviews.
New Westminster College was incorporated in that city in 2011, the same year that Mr. Goodwin started issuing dozens of press releases describing himself as a "general" or "retired general." He met Conservative Party figures in the Lower B.C. Mainland, and, even today, some of their notions of his past service are fuzzy at best.
"I haven't done any due diligence … but I think he's a nice guy," said David Nelson, a riding association president in Surrey. "He throws himself into things. He goes for it every time. That would explain why he rose to the level that he did in the military."
Mr. Goodwin got especially close to one particular political power couple – Gurmant and Nina Grewal. Neither currently holds a seat, but a decade ago the Conservative spouses made a name for themselves as Canada's first concurrently serving husband-and-wife MPs. Records show Mr. Goodwin made a $1,100 contribution to the successful re-election campaign of Nina Grewal in 2011. (She lost her seat this fall.)
He served as her riding-association president for about a year. That's usually a background role, but Mr. Goodwin put out several statements documenting his forward trajectory. "Canada, British Columbia, Surrey, and the riding of Fleetwood-Port Kells will be well-served by having Gen. Robert Goodwin," Ms. Grewal is quoted as saying in one such statement. Later, Mr. Goodwin thanked her for encouraging the governor-general to award him a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal: "I am truly honoured to have been nominated by MP Nina Grewal."
Several photographs posted online show Ms. Grewal and Mr. Goodwin together meeting cabinet ministers passing through town. Ms. Grewal was also photographed in Ottawa with Mr. Goodwin in the prime minister's Centre Block office. "I was simply introduced as the founder of New Westminster College," he recalled during the California interview. "And he thought it was a great idea."
Ms. Grewal did not return phone calls from The Globe, nor did her husband. But on his LinkedIn page, Gurmant Grewal claims to have been the inaugural vice-chairman of New Westminster College. Ms. Copps, a former parliamentary colleague of Mr. Grewal, told The Globe that it was he who first suggested she join the school.
There is also a YouTube video in which Mr. Grewal accepts an honorary PhD in political science and diplomacy from Caucasus University in Tbilisi, Georgia, as he thanks Mr. Goodwin for blazing the trail toward that accolade.
To understand how that happened, know that New Westminster College claims Caucasus University as something of a sister school. Or at least, according to a press release circulated by Mr. Goodwin, the two schools have agreed to "mutual co-operation in teaching, research and joint projects."
The Canadian college has given fellowships to several Tbilisians, and Caucasus U has also apparently recognized Mr. Goodwin. "For whatever reason, they decided to make me a full professor," he said.
New Westminster College is also said to be contemplating a campus in Morocco. Newspaper articles published in that country have spoken of a potential New Westminster College-branded medical school in Rabat.
The current status of that project is not clear, but The Globe spoke to a Saudi businessman who also serves as the vice-chair of the executive committee of the board of governors of Mr. Goodwin's college. "It will be the biggest medical centre in Morocco," said the businessman, who is trying to arrange the financing.
Macedonia is another country with which Mr. Goodwin has cultivated a relationship. In fact, he once took the country's president and his entourage on a tour of the Canadian Forces College in Toronto. A New Westminster College press release describes that visit as a "joint leadership forum" between the two schools. However, one retired Canadian Forces commander told The Globe he recalls it as more like an informal walk-through with briefings, adding that "such visits happen on average several times per month."
Astronauts in its ranks, and UPEI on its wish list
Another former military official did, however, swear by the networking opportunities that Mr. Goodwin affords. "New Westminster College is not a fly-by-night, shoddy operation," he told The Globe, asking not to be identified.
That sentiment was echoed by a recently retired business professor from the University of Western Ontario. Murray Bryant, who became the provost of New Westminster College this past summer, is now volunteering to help the school get its cybersecurity seminars off the ground. The professor says that he spent much of his career setting up business schools and teaching courses telling Canadian executives "how to ask smart, intelligent questions, and know when someone is giving them BS."
Mr. Bryant says he has faith that "General Goodwin" will get the job done. "He has been a very senior military officer."
Last summer, Mr. Goodwin and his team pitched potential partnerships to outsiders. During such presentations, they circulated a glossy brochure with pages of photos of the far-flung fellows. The college's claimed ranks now include more than 45 diplomats, 50 government officials, 100 medical doctors and 120 military generals and admirals – plus four astronauts. And all of them, the college claims in its marketing material, fully endorse Mr. Goodwin's educational plans. Potential partners are told that "by joining our noble endeavour, you can enjoy knowing you have created a shared legacy that will live on in perpetuity."
In June, a formal pitch was made to the University of Prince Edward Island, proposing that the two organizations team up to offer a "master of science in cybersecurity." The idea is that the very real threat of modern hackers can be leveraged to induce well-heeled executives to part with $70,000 over two summers in exchange for several weeks of live-in education. New Westminster College promised to bring in its ambassadors and generals as potential instructors. UPEI was asked to consider contributing space on its campus – and, most importantly, its legal ability to offer accredited degree courses.
Yet the unsolicited proposal appears to be as far as things got. "It sounds as if there was a fairly informal meeting this summer, when someone from New Westminster was on the Island," a UPEI spokesman told The Globe. But he said no one has ever followed up on that meeting.
A general of a different sort, 'only a phone call away!'
These days, New Westminster College seems to be a dream in limbo. Mr. Goodwin is less visible in Vancouver. Some distinguished fellows recall his speaking about heading East to pursue accreditation in Ontario. Others had heard he had gone back to California for good.
When The Globe caught up with Mr. Goodwin there, he insisted that Canada was still his adopted home – and that the college is on the cusp of big things.
Yet, one subject was taboo for him: how he earns a living. "You know, I've already opened up a lot to you," he said. "If I have other business interests, I have other interests."
Corporate and court records pretty much tell that tale, however. And there's a twist.
Years before "General Goodwin" came to Vancouver, he had incorporated certain businesses that he called "Goodwin General." He gave the companies that name because he apparently makes his money as a self-employed general contractor.
"He's 'the general,' " said one American who knew him in this capacity. Not wanting to be publicly identified as a person out to puncture Mr. Goodwin's persona, the source explained how these things work. Such "generals" marshal small armies of "subs" to do various jobs. "He's overseeing them all: the electrician, the plumber, the masonry guy, the concrete guy, the flooring guy, the tile guy, all of it."
Records support this. In the 1980s and early 1990s, Mr. Goodwin fought in a San Diego court to retain control of what he then called the Goodwin Painting Company. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, he fanned out – registering similar businesses dubbed Goodwin General in Atlanta, Phoenix, Seattle and Las Vegas, among other places. Until recently, one of those companies was certified to do contracting and painting in California.
Mr. Goodwin appears to have registered another business in Vancouver in 2011, one that he called Asset Painting. Or at least, that was done by someone who used the same Canada Place suite and phone number as the founder of New Westminster College.
An advertisement for that bygone business survives online: "We restore and maintain your property's value! Satisfaction and an enjoyable contracting experience are only a phone call away!" A phone number is then given for Managing Director "Rob Goodwin."
During two conversations with The Globe, Mr. Goodwin never admitted to that line of work. Proud and defiant, Retired General Robert E. Lee Goodwin III, inscrutable to the last.
With reports from Oliver Sachgau and Stephanie Chambers