Mendicino offers no answers on why he, PM were among last to know of Bernardo move

By Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press

Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said Thursday it is “unacceptable” he was kept in the dark about Paul Bernardo’s controversial prison transfer,but refused to detail on how it happened.

Reporters cornered the minister as questions swirled on Parliament Hill about why he and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau were among the last to know about it, despite their staff being informed months earlier.

He acknowledged that the fact he and Trudeau were among the last informed was a “challenge.”

The Liberal government was already dealing with fallout from the Correctional Service of Canada’s decision to move the convicted killer and serial rapist out of a maximum-security prison in Ontario to a medium-security institution in Quebec.

But further controversy erupted this week when the correctional service confirmed it told the minister’s office about the transfer in early March and again in late May once a date for the move had been set.

Trudeau’s office said he was briefed on the transfer the day it happened, while Mendicino says he only found out about it a day later.

RELATED: Public safety minister’s staff knew of Bernardo’s prison transfer months in advance

RELATED: Trudeau’s staff also knew about Paul Bernardo prison transfer for months

A spokeswomen for Trudeau said the Privy Council Office alerted one of his staffers about the potential move in March, and the staffer reached out to Mendicino’s office for more information.

Audrey Champoux, a spokeswoman for Mendicino, said Trudeau’s office received the first notification.

After staff for the public safety minister heard from Trudeau’s office about it, she said, they followed up with the correctional service.

That’s when the service provided staff with initial details that she described as “generic communications products about inmate transfers.”

Speaking briefly to reporters after appearing before a parliamentary committee, Mendicino called it “unacceptable” that he wasn’t informed earlier by his staff.

Mendicino said he plans to issue a directive to make sure the public safety minister is personally informed when a high-profile inmate is to be transferred and that the correctional service notifies victims in advance of such decisions being made.

“As far an internal matters,” the minister said of his office, “I’ve dealt with it.”

He refused to say whether any of his staff have been disciplined. “The short answer is, it is unacceptable and my job is to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.”

Opposition MPs continued to press Mendicino to resign during Thursday’s question period.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre also challenged the Liberal government to support a private member’s bill from an Ontario Tory MP that proposes to change the rules so that convicted murderers with multiple victims must serve out their entire sentences in maximum security.

Government House leader Mark Holland said Bernardo’s transfer remains under review by the correctional service.

He said despite Canadians’ understandable outrage over his transfer to a medium-security prison, it is important not to “politicize” the country’s prison system, which operates independently of government.

Bernardo is serving a life sentence for the kidnapping, sexual abuse and murders of 15-year-old Kristen French and 14-year-old Leslie Mahaffy in the early 1990s.

He has admitted to sexually assaulting 14 other women and was convicted of manslaughter in the death of Tammy Homolka, who died after being drugged and sexually assaulted.

Tammy was the 15-year-old sister of Bernardo’s then-wife Karla Homolka, who was released in 2005 after completing a 12-year sentence for her role in the crimes committed against French and Mahaffy.

Tim Danson, a lawyer for their families, said that this week marks the anniversary of Mahaffy’s abduction and murder. He said the victims’ relatives want the correctional service’s decision reversed.

Mary Campbell, a former long-time public servant who retired from her role in the Public Safety Department in 2013, said she views the controversy around Mendicino not being informed by his staff of Bernardo’s pending transfer as a “snafu.”

She said the reason a process exists within corrections to alert the minister’s office about situations involving high-profile offenders is so as to not catch a minister off guard.

“The process should have worked just fine.”

Campbell said Thursday that having worked for 14 ministers, she had never seen one have to issue a directive that said: “Please tell me important things.”

“I’m completely at a loss,” she added.

The federal corrections service has been clear that the public safety minister and their staffers have no say over decisions around the transfer of inmates or the security classifications they receive, both of which are governed by laws covering the prison system.

Corrections spokesman Kevin Antonucci said such decisions are made by applying criteria like an offender’s risk of escape and adjustments to a facility.

Both Poilievre and Danson have suggested the public safety minister could force Bernardo back into maximum-security prison by issuing the kind of ministerial directive that he said he would use to ensure better communication.

Tom Engel, the president of the Canadian Prison Law Association, penned an open letter to the minister Thursday, saying his comments to date about Bernardo’s transfer have been “inappropriate.”

“Fundamentally, what is inappropriate is for you, or any other politician, to be commenting on a specific decision of the Correctional Service of Canada,” the letter read.

The letter continued: “We do not choose a person’s security level based solely on the severity of their offences and we certainly do not keep them in maximum security based on this factor alone. Nor does the sentencing judge decide what a person’s security level is going to be when they are convicted and sentenced.”

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