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Friday, December 14, 2007

Former adviser to Prime Minister Harper and Public Safety Minister Day lobbies for Taser International

December 19, 2007
Winnipeg Free Press

... [Stephen] Harper fulminated against Liberal partisans earning big bucks for touching up who they knew in the Prime Minister's Office. Now, one of Harper's oldest and closest political allies, Ken Boessenkool, a co-signer with Harper of the 2000 Alberta "firewall" letter, has become Taser International's lobbyist in Ottawa.

Close to Harper, Boessenkool is even closer to Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day, having worked for him when Day was Alberta finance minister. Day is in charge of the RCMP -- and its Tasers.

As CanWest Ottawa columnist Don Martin penned last Saturday: "(Boessenkool) has only been severed from Mr. Harper's office since 2004 ... and he'll be peddling Taser's influence down two corridors of power (Harper's and Day's) where he commanded considerable influence as a policy wonk."

December 14, 2007
The Canadian Press

OTTAWA - A Tory election strategist and former adviser to both the prime minister and public safety minister became a lobbyist for Taser International soon after use of its stun guns came under intense scrutiny. Consultant Ken Boessenkool registered the Arizona-based Taser maker as a client on Nov. 28, two weeks after the videotaped death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski unleashed international outrage. "I'm not authorized to speak on behalf of my client to the media," Boessenkool said when reached Friday. "I'd refer you to the Taser media line." No comment from Taser International was immediately available.

Boessenkool, of the public relations firm Hill & Knowlton, was a senior adviser in opposition to now Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He played key strategic roles in the 2004 and 2006 Conservative election campaigns, and was a policy adviser to Stockwell Day - now public safety minister - when Day was treasurer of Alberta. Boessenkool lists Day's department and the RCMP as potential points of contact in his filing with the Registrar of Lobbyists.

Liberal public safety critic Ujjal Dosanjh pounced on Boessenkool's past links to the current government. "It explains all sorts of things. If you look at the approach Day has taken, he's essentially been absent from the debate about Tasers and related concerns." Dosanjh has assailed Day for brushing off demands for a national public inquiry into Taser use. Instead, the minister called for an internal RCMP review along with a report from its watchdog commission.

Dosanjh also cited Boessenkool's lobbying links to pharmaceutical firm Merck Frosst, which benefited from a surprise $300-million fund in the last federal budget to vaccinate girls against cervical cancer. "Obviously his lobbying is very effective," Dosanjh said in an interview. "This is a clear case of Taser being able to exercise influence behind the scene so that we really don't have a government that's on the up and up in terms of addressing the issues around Tasers."

A spokeswoman for Day said Boessenkool "is entitled to seek employment in any capacity he chooses. "Minister Day has not met with Mr. Boessenkool nor any representative of Taser International," Melisa Leclerc said in an e-mailed response.

The RCMP watchdog recommended this week that Tasers be classified as impact weapons and drastically restricted to the most threatening combative situations. Such changes are needed, said the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP, to curb what it called "usage creep." It has, for example, criticized the RCMP for zapping a drunken woman with a 50,000-volt Taser even after she was handcuffed.

The Mounties stopped short of the watchdog's recommendations, however. They announced Friday they'll more clearly define use-of-force terminology and limit Tasers to cases where "a subject is displaying combative behaviours or is being actively resistant." Critics said that still leaves Taser use open to broad interpretation and possible abuse.

RCMP Commissioner William Elliott conceded at a news conference that the stun guns haven't always been wielded appropriately. About 2,800 of the electronic weapons are being used by more than 9,100 RCMP members across the country.

Dziekanski was recorded as the 18th person in Canada to die in recent years after being Tasered. The Mounties have been embroiled in controversy since Nov. 14 when amateur video was released of officers repeatedly zapping the man and pinning him to the floor at Vancouver International Airport.

Taser International stresses that its devices have never been directly blamed for a death. It has vigorously and successfully defended them in several lawsuits. The stun guns are also popular with police, who say they're a safer alternative to batons or pepper spray. Amnesty International cites at least 280 deaths in the United States after suspects were Tasered. It says the weapons should be suspended pending an independent, comprehensive study of their effects.

Duff Conacher of Democracy Watch is waging a court challenge of how federal lobbying rules are interpreted and enforced. "You wouldn't have Boessenkool going into the Conservative war room for their election campaign and then coming out and being a lobbyist if the (Registrar of Lobbyists) was properly enforcing the Lobbyist's Code of Conduct. But you do have it. And it's going on and on and on. The revolving door of lobbyists moving in and out of government is spinning as much as it ever has with this government."

When Harper first introduced the idea of accountability legislation just before the last election, he warned candidates, their workers and party staff alike that "politics will no longer be a stepping stone to a lucrative career lobbying government." "This exercise will be meaningless unless our government is different," Harper said at the time.

The lobbyist regulations in the Federal Accountability Act still haven't been posted, however, more than a year after Harper's showpiece legislation was passed. A five-year cooling off period for public officials who want to lobby government is already in force under federal conflict-of-interest rules but exemptions abound, says Conacher.

A parade of well-connected Tories continues to join various lobbying and government relations firms - including some who made the leap directly from senior positions in ministers' offices.

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