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Riddell libel case against PM quietly settled

|Written By Tim Naumetz

OTTAWA – One of the most politically charged court cases in Canada ended quietly recently when Prime Minister Stephen Harper agreed to settle a libel suit from Ottawa lawyer Alan Riddell, rather than head into a jury trial scheduled for February.

Confidentiality terms of the agreement were so strictly managed by the Conservatives it took three days for news of the end of the 18-month-old battle to become an item on the network news.

“The Conservative Party of Canada and Alan Riddell announce they have mutually settled all legal proceedings brought by Mr. Riddell against the Conservative Party of Canada and Conservative party officials,” said a one-sentence news release the party e-mailed to a journalist at 8:22 a.m. on a Saturday.

Riddell was a longtime Progressive Conservative stalwart before he agreed to step aside as a candidate for the 2006 election in favour of Harper’s star candidate for the Conservative party in the riding of Ottawa South. It was that agreement, actually the question of its existence, which led to the David vs. Goliath litigation.

A prominent advocate in local circles who has argued major cases in the Supreme Court of Canada, Riddell acted on his own behalf to support his lead counsel, newly elected Law Society of Upper Canada bencher Tom Conway. Harper and party president Don Plett had the resources of the Conservative party, nearly $30 million in contributions, government allowances, and election rebates last year alone, behind them.

Though the case had not reached the stage of widespread national publicity when it ended with a whimper instead of a bang, the legal drama was gripping at close range.

Two lawyers who once shared firm space - Conway and Conservative party counsel Robert Houston - sniped so heatedly during examinations and hearings that the senior justice of Ontario Superior Court eastern division had to verbally step between them. Conservative e-mails filed in court demonstrated truth in the adage about politics and blood sports.

Conway cited the landmark Hill v. Church of Scientology case when he later explained that Riddell’s determination to defend his reputation as a lawyer was a central concern when he served the libel action against the prime minister and the party president.

The 1995 Hill ruling singled out the particular importance of reputation for an advocate when it confirmed damages totalling $1.6 million to former Crown attorney Casey Hill, now a Superior Court justice, after the church and its lawyer had wrongfully accused him of breaching court sealing orders.

“In order for our courts to operate effectively, the judges of the court, the court officials, have to rely on the honesty and integrity of the lawyers that appear before them,” says Conway, with McCarthy Tétrault LLP. For a lawyer, reputation “affects everything in professional life.”

But unlike the legal origin of Hill’s case, it was Riddell’s political sideline that came to endanger his reputation as a lawyer.

Under extreme pressure from Harper’s top aides and election organizers, he agreed on the eve of the campaign for the January 2006 federal election to abandon his nomination bid in Ottawa South. Harper and his campaign director, Doug Finley, wanted a candidate who would boost Conservative fortunes across Canada: Allan Cutler, the former public servant who confronted managers internally over suspicious public works contracts that eventually led to the Liberal sponsorship scandal.

Riddell, a staunch loyalist in the old Progressive Conservative party, was not popular with members of Harper’s inner circle from the old Reform party network. Organizer Jenni Byrne, who now works in the prime minister’s office, said in an e-mail to Finley that Plett was ready to “yank his membership card” if that was the only way they could get him out of the way. “I would love to make Riddell sweat,” she wrote.

After Riddell finally agreed, in exchange for a party guarantee it would compensate him up to $50,000 for the cost of earlier nomination appeals and expenses, a party official suggested to journalists he had been disqualified by his riding association. In reaction, Riddell publicly disclosed the deal with the party. Harper and Plett denied there was an agreement.

“The innuendo was that he wasn’t telling the truth about a legal agreement he made with the party,” says Conway.

During interminable hearings, Riddell won a related ruling from Superior Court Justice Denis Power that the evidence showed an agreement existed and, even if it included an implicit clause of confidentiality, as the party claimed, Riddell’s public comments about it did not void the agreement, as the party also argued.

For Riddell, Power’s ruling was the turning point in a long fight he thought had been settled several times after the party hierarchy challenged his initial nomination. “What was really key for me was getting the finding from the Ontario Superior Court that there had been an agreement and the crux of that agreement was that I, as the leading contender for the nomination in Ottawa South, agreed to voluntarily step aside in favour of Mr. Cutler,” Riddell tells Law Times. “It was very stressful and it certainly had an impact on my personal life and my work, and my longstanding friendships in the party.”

Despite the ruling, months passed before Riddell and the party and Harper worked out the private settlement.

Houston, who once practiced with both Conway and Riddell at Soloway Wright LLP, could only comment generally about the hazards lawyers face when they take up politics, and the damage it can wreak on reputations. Libel lawyer Richard Dearden took the lead from Houston in the final pre-trial stage, when Harper claimed parliamentary immunity prevented him from being drawn into examinations or court testimony.

“Without question, just speaking very generally, a lawyer’s reputation is something to very closely guard,” said Houston, now with Burke-Robertson LLP. “Unfortunately, what happens once you step into the political ring, allegations are fired back and forth when one is a, quote, politician, who also happens to be a lawyer.”

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