CBC hired external investigator to probe nepotism complaints after executives’ spouses awarded contracts
The CBC hired an external investigator to probe two top television executives after receiving complaints that at least 13 contracts were handed to production companies owned by their spouses. Although the investigator found no breaches of the public broadcaster’s conflict of interest policy, the legal counsel for one anonymous complainant said the findings are “inconsistent with the facts” and the contracts present the appearance of conflict of interest.
In May 2015, lawyer and workplace investigator Gillian Shearer was retained by the broadcaster to review whether approvals of the projects amounted to a conflict for Sally Catto, CBC’s general manager of programming, and her predecessor in another senior position, Phyllis Platt, who is no longer with the broadcaster.
The CBC acknowledged the investigation in a statement: “After a thorough review, it was determined that Sally Catto and Phyllis Platt did not breach our Conflict of Interest and Ethics Policy.”
“It’s not uncommon for people to develop personal relationships through work and this industry is no exception to that rule. CBC employees who are involved with someone within the industry must recuse themselves from any decision-making regarding projects that include their partner,” the statement adds.
Catto has served with the CBC in various senior capacities since 2001, when she took on the role of executive in charge of drama production. She was named general manager of programming in 2014. (Catto briefly left for 12 months in parts of 2011-2012 to work in a senior role at Cineflix.)
Between 2008 and 2014, while Catto served in various executive director roles at CBC Television, a production company co-owned by her husband, Angus Fraser, Fraser Prodco and Gang of 2 Productions, were alleged by a complainant to have received at least eight contracts — six development deals and two pilot orders — from the public broadcaster. Documents obtained by the National Post under an access to information request confirm approval of the deals and reveal a ninth contract for Gang of 2 was approved by CBC brass in December 2014, although all financial terms were redacted.
While Catto was at the CBC, Fraser’s companies received a series development deal for The Cult, a production order for a series pilot for The Cult, a series development deal for 100 Things, a development deal for Fancy, a production order for a series pilot for Fancy, a development deal for After, a development deal for Gangland, a development deal for Floorwalker, and a development deal for an untitled World War I project.
Platt, a CBC executive through much of the 1990s, served a one-year maternity leave contract in Catto’s absence beginning in 2010, in the role of executive director, arts and entertainment television.
It was alleged by the same complainant that PDM Entertainment, a production company co-owned by Platt and her husband, Peter Moss, received five contracts with the CBC during her brief tenure — three development deals and two production orders. Documents obtained by the Post under an access to information request confirm approval of the deals, although all financial terms were redacted.
In the year that Platt returned to the CBC, PDM received a series development deal for The Best Laid Plans, a series production order for The Best Laid Plans, a development deal for Still Life, a development deal for Louise Penny / Inspector Gamache project and a production order for Still Life.
E-mails sent by senior CBC staff and Shearer, and obtained by the Post, confirm Shearer’s report on the allegations was rendered to the broadcaster in August 2015. The report is confidential and was not provided to any of the individuals Shearer spoke to, although some details and quotes from her findings were conveyed to at least one of those interviewed by CBC’s human resources department.
According to notes taken by that person’s legal counsel and obtained by the Post, a CBC HR representative related in September 2015 that Shearer wrote the deals could be interpreted to suggest the appearance of conflict of interest.
“From an outside perspective, it may appear that there was nepotism and favouritism involving respondent Catto and Angus Fraser and respondent Platt and Peter Moss,” Shearer is said to have written.
The CBC’s Conflict of Interest and Ethics Policy goes beyond barring actual conflict, reading “no conflict should exist or appear to exist between the private interests of CBC/Radio-Canada employees and their official duties.”
However, Shearer is said to have determined “the facts do not support that respondent Catto or respondent Platt were in any way, while with the CBC, involved in influencing, preferring or managing matters involving their respective spouses or projects involving their respective projects.”
In ruling that Catto did not show “any preference for projects involving her spouse Angus Fraser,” Shearer is said to have written, “rather, I accept that CBC receives a large volume of pitches in any given year depending upon a number of factors including, but not limited to, preferences of senior programming executives.”
Shearer did rule that Platt participated in some approvals for three of her husband’s projects, stating “there was some initial development work approved for [miniseries] The Best Laid Plans and for [movie projects] Still Life and Dead Cold.”
However, her report ultimately concluded that Platt did not violate CBC policies. “I respect Platt’s evidence, which was corroborated by witnesses, that during her tenure with the CBC in 2010 and 2011 she had no independent authority to approve production deals,” Shearer is said to have written. “I further accept that, while working for the CBC in 2010 and 2011, she removed herself from decision making in respect to projects involving her spouse, Peter Moss.”
Shearer’s Toronto firm, Shearer Lattal LLP, did not return a request for interview.
According to one senior source at CBC Television, the complaints that led to the investigation were made by a television producer who also complained that their own project had not been greenlit or supported by the broadcaster.
Shearer’s report also revealed that former CBC Television executive Kirstine Stewart, who went on to Twitter and is now with social media website Diply, was investigated following similar conflict of interest allegations in 2011 after her husband, actor and writer Zaib Shaikh, was said to have received six deals with the CBC under her tenure. That investigation, triggered by an anonymous complaint, found there was no breach of policy in Stewart’s case.
“With respect to Ms. Stewart, as the 2015 complaint was of the same nature as one filed in 2011 and that had already been investigated and found to be unsubstantiated,” said the CBC, in its statement.
Reached by the Post, Stewart did not have anything to add to the CBC statement. Platt did not respond to requests for comment, nor did Catto.
Howard Levitt, an employment and labour lawyer and senior partner at Levitt LLP (and a freelance columnist for the National Post), acted as legal counsel for the anonymous complainant against Catto and Platt. He believes Shearer’s conclusions were “clearly inconsistent with the facts and, in my view, nonsensical.”
“There was a finding that there was no conflict of interest and no appearance of conflict of interest,” said Levitt who participated in a September 2015 phone call with the complainant and a CBC HR representative. “I said, based on the facts that we know or that we understand, that’s impossible.”
“Of course, if the CBC gives lots of contracts to the husbands of senior managers, that’s the appearance of conflict of interest,” he added. “And if that’s the standard of the CBC — that the spouses of managers one after the other is having contracts given to them — it is so seemingly inappropriate and smells so badly that it’s something the CBC should not be permitting in any event.”
CBC Television wasn’t the only part of the broadcaster to face conflict of interest allegations in 2015. CBC News also barred its on-air talent from taking paid speaking engagements after several personalities were alleged to have received compensation from companies and interest groups who factored in their coverage.