The Rick Chiarelli train wreck chugs on
People & Places

The Rick Chiarelli train wreck chugs on

Like many controversies, it had mostly laid dormant amid the pandemic, but the slow-moving train wreck that is the saga of allegations against Councillor Rick Chiarelli has reared its ugly head in recent days — only to remind of how far away it remains from any kind of satisfying resolution.

Yes, the city’s Integrity Commissioner Robert Marleau released his long-awaited report declaring that Chiarelli did violate the code of conduct in what might be described as allegations of serial and lewd interactions with young female staffers and potential staffers going back a number of years.

And yes, Ottawa City Council subsequently imposed the maximum financial penalty against Chiarelli as set out by Marleau — 270 days of suspended pay amounting to about $79,000. But outcry bemoaning the ineffectiveness of the penalty has been swift and harsh and, more importantly, a final outcome of the sordid affair still feels to be little more than a fuzzy concept.

Councillor Rick Chiarelli

Despite the sizable pay suspension and a growing chorus of critics (armed with, most recently, a petition and a letter from community groups) who want the beleaguered councillor removed, or fired, or forced to resign, or simply gone in any way possible, Chiarelli has the nuances of “bureaucrazy” on his side. Councillors can be jettisoned only if convicted of a criminal offence, for violating election rules, or for running afoul of Ontario’s financial conflict-of-interest laws. None of these conditions apply to Chiarelli.

Not surprisingly, the councillor and his lawyers have gone all-in on what you might call the Four D’s of defending against allegations of ethical transgressions: deny everything, delay everything, decry a bias among accusers, and disappear from public view (this last one much easier to pull off in a pandemic).

On the delay and decry front, Chiarelli has requested a judicial review based on claims that the complaints against him were never a matter for the integrity commissioner and that councillors had displayed bias when, for instance, publicly calling for him to resign.

On the disappear front, Chiarelli seemed to cryptically mock the collective forces working against him when he posted a strange video to his Twitter account in November amidst a long period of absence. The 24-second video featured a tap-dancing marionette and a painting of four young women posing alongside an adult male who bore a striking resemblance to Chiarelli. 

Said to be a lover of political intrigue, Chiarelli was speaking here with images, not words, but by cheekily suggesting that someone is pulling strings, the clever councillor was clearly yanking our chain.

How the painful and multi-pronged Chiarelli process plays out is anyone’s guess, but were it a game of chess, it seems that we’d be about half-way through all the available moves. And yet the chess analogy doesn’t quite fit, does it? In chess the game ends with a clear winner and loser. With Chiarelli, no matter how the allegations are resolved, there will be no winner and only victims, really — victims including the women he allegedly harmed, the constituents he seems to have failed, and the office of councillor that has been vacant for this period.

Common sense might indicate that Chiarelli’s only concern now can be for damage limitation. With what seems like overwhelming evidence and mounting public opinion both stacked against him, how could he imagine any kind of redemption, even if some of his legal maneuverings somehow pay off in the end?

Surely Chiarelli realizes that, while the accusations remain unconfirmed, he has lost the respect of his colleagues and his community fully and completely and that his days as a functioning councillor are over. If he’s now merely trying to save a little bit of face, isn’t it far, far too late?

Tony Martins has examined aspects of Ottawa culture for 20 years, including columns on the city’s civic pride and moments of low-ball politics for previous editions of Ottawa Magazine.