FREDERICTON - New Brunswick's official Opposition has accused Premier Brian Gallant of failing to act swiftly on allegations of harassment against the Speaker of the legislature, suggesting the Liberals were trying to cover up the matter.
Progressive Conservative Leader Blaine Higgs said in a statement Friday that Gallant was told about the allegations against Chris Collins on Feb. 17, but reconvened the legislature on March 13 with Collins in the Speaker's chair.
Higgs said the premier then called a supposedly "urgent" news conference Thursday evening to announce that Collins had been suspended from the Liberal caucus — a day-and-a-half after learning a former employee of the legislative assembly was going ahead with the allegations.
Tory justice critic Hugh Flemming said the lag time is perplexing and that the premier should have started an investigation into the matter as soon as he learned about it.
"The thing that gets me is this is a coverup that blew up," he said in an interview.
"I have serious reservations and concerns in the way in which the premier has handled this. The premier's been aware of it and they suddenly and without notice closed the legislature when it was scheduled to sit for three more weeks. To me, the issue that I'm concerned with is the truth and secondly, the manner in which Brian Gallant has handled this when he has known about it since February."
A spokesperson for Gallant pushed back against the allegation of a coverup.
"The premier's office did not receive any actionable allegations until April 4 and did not receive consent from the alleged victim to comment publicly until April 5," Tina Robichaud said in a statement Friday night.
"The premier went public with the information less than two hours after government received consent from the alleged victim."
Gallant said in Thursday's conference call that he wanted to respect the former employee's request for time to consider their options and that there will be an independent, third-party investigation of the unspecified allegations against the 55-year-old Speaker.
"Any workplace harassment is unacceptable and government will take prompt and appropriate action in this situation and whenever such allegations are brought forward," Gallant said at the hastily called news conference.
Gallant said his majority government will ask the legislative administration committee to suspend Collins from his position while the investigation is underway. But he released no details about the nature of the allegations or the complainant.
Flemming said that's not acceptable.
"I'm a lawyer ... and the first thing you're told is get all the facts and we don't have the facts," he said. "We don't know who the complainant is, we don't know where the complainant is, we don't know what the complaint is. We only know, given the reaction of the premier, it's serious."
The premier said when staff in his office learned of "personality conflicts" between the Speaker and the former employee, the employee was moved to another job, but Gallant did not make it clear when that happened.
On Feb. 17, the premier's office was told of potential allegations of harassment involving the Speaker, but the employee chose not to bring forward the allegations at that time, Gallant said. The premier said the employee asked for time to consider their options.
But he said it was confirmed Wednesday that the former employee was making allegations of harassment.
Green party Leader David Coon said in a statement Friday that it is the responsibility of the legislative branch of government to determine the course of action in response to harassment allegations.
He said he wrote to Liberal MLA Bernard LeBlanc, vice-chairman of the legislative administration committee, to request that he convene a meeting of the committee Friday by teleconference.
LeBlanc issued a statement Friday saying he would convene a meeting of the committee on Monday.
"I have full confidence that the members of the committee will take appropriate steps to ensure this matter is resolved appropriately, and that due process is followed," LeBlanc said.
Collins did not respond to a request for comment.
He was first elected to the provincial legislature in a 2007 byelection, 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.
According to his official biography, the Saint John, N.B., native studied political science and philosophy at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, and spent two decades as a salesman and account representative for Clairol, L'Oreal, Alberto-Culver and General Mills Canada.
The former minor soccer coach lost his son Sean in 2007 to a cancer-related illness, and is a board member of Advocacy for Canadian Childhood Oncology Research Network.
The next general election in New Brunswick is slated for Sept. 24.
Gallant said the nomination process for Collins' riding, Moncton Centre, has yet to happen.