Senate shifts rules for Don Meredith victim compensation process

OTTAWA — The Senate says harassment victims of disgraced former senator Don Meredith can now have lawyers present when speaking to an independent evaluator hired to determine potential compensation for them, and also that their legal costs might be covered.

This is a partial reversal in the rules set by the upper chamber and comes two days after two former Meredith employees went public, calling the evaluation process "totally unacceptable."

The two women told The Canadian Press Tuesday they felt they were being bullied by the Senate into taking part in a compensation process that is unfair and opaque.

They have not been named publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity to preserve their privacy as victims of harassment and abuse.

The process was put in place in response to a four-year investigation completed last year by the Senate ethics officer that found Meredith repeatedly bullied, threatened and intimidated his staff. It also found he repeatedly touched, kissed and propositioned some of them.

The two victims who came forward this week voiced a number of concerns, especially over stipulations saying they were not to use lawyers when speaking with the independent evaluator, former Quebec appeals court judge Louise Otis, because the evaluation is not a trial or a judicial hearing.

They were also told in a letter from the Senate's own lawyers that if they did seek legal advice to help them prepare submissions or testimony, they would have to cover their own costs.

"You do not need a lawyer to participate in this process; however, one may assist you in submitting your claim. Any legal fees incurred voluntarily by you are your personal responsibility," said a letter sent to one of the employees by Catherine Beaudoin, the Senate's deputy law clerk.

The correspondence was provided to The Canadian Press.

The letter goes on to say that if they have any questions or concerns, the employees are encouraged to contact the Senate's legal counsel.

"How can they defend themselves, how can they testify and how can they represent themselves when they don't have the same level playing field of the Senate as an institution?" the two victims' lawyer, Brian Mitchell, said in an interview earlier this week.

Mitchell sent a letter to members of the internal economy committee outlining his clients' concerns and asking for the process to be changed.

Senate lawyer Charles Feldman wrote back, saying any concerns they may have should be directed to Otis, but did not indicate any planned changes in the rules.

But in a statement issued Thursday, the human resources arm of the internal economy committee said it wished to provide "additional information" about the process after receiving a number of media requests in response to the two former employees speaking out.

It clarified that lawyers for the employees may now accompany them during the evaluation process and that their legal expenses might be reimbursed — if Otis recommends this as part of her final determination on compensation.

Otis's recommendations for compensation will not be binding, but rather will be presented to the internal economy committee, which will make the final determination on how much each victim may receive in damages and legal costs.

The two employees could not be reached for comment Thursday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 6, 2020.

Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press