Special Reports

How attempts to smear News Nanaimo backfired on key figures in city politics

Personal attacks and defamation by allies of CAO lead to Councillor’s public apology.
I’m taking the unusual step today of documenting a series of incidents showing that several individuals closely aligned with Nanaimo Chief Administrative Officer Tracy Samra have attempted to discredit me and my wife through personal attacks and defamation.

Spanning a three-month period, the incidents include improper actions by Ms. Samra herself, city councillor Gord Fuller and several private citizens aligned with them. Most of the incidents took place on Facebook and Twitter, but also included messages sent to me by Ms. Samra via her private Facebook and email accounts, which precludes them from being captured under freedom of information laws.character_gallery

Taken together, these incidents show a pattern of activity that seems intended to discourage and deflect legitimate scrutiny and criticism of their performance and actions as civic leaders.

The personal attacks culminated 21 days ago with totally false and defamatory allegations that would be laughable if they were not so damaging and hurtful. The falsehoods included insinuations that I may have been a propagandist for the Apartheid regime in South Africa and that I fabricated my past journalism experience in my “homeland” and took credit for the work of a nonexistent black journalist of the same name at the time.

Other false allegations have included that there is a hidden relationship between my wife and I and Vancouver-based Integrity Group, a company whose outstanding invoice for services the City has not paid. There have also been many comments about my personality and mental state, as well as claims about me fabricating information.

All of these allegations and insinuations are 100% false. There is not a shred of truth to any them, not even remotely. They are simply fabrications by people opposed to the information News Nanaimo publishes.the_cao

The truth is I am part of the fourth generation of my family to proudly call Canada home. The truth is that my wife and I have risked our security and liberty to oppose racism and abuses of power in all of their forms. The truth is I began my career as a young activist journalist in South Africa. Instead of choosing the easy life in Canada, I returned to South Africa determined to expose the wrongs perpetrated under the Apartheid regime. The truth is that I took considerable risks doing so, including the risk of being discovered and sent to jail for up to 6 years for refusing to serve in the regime’s military. The truth is I was one of the few journalists in South Africa whose work was noteworthy enough to be reported on by other journalists and to merit consideration for the first national heroes awards in that country.

The truth is I seldom talk about myself or my previous work as a journalist. All I ever said publicly was that I have a background as a journalist and communications consultant in Canada and South Africa spanning over 25 years. Nothing more. I didn’t say more because my moral compass says it is unseemly to do so when many others paid the ultimate sacrifice to fight the things I wrote about. When you have seen the bodies of dead protesters laying bloodied in the dirt, or talked to true leaders like Nelson Mandela or read his personal letters from prison years before almost anyone else, or listened to the stories of countless victims of unaccountable and corrupt authorities, your life and “achievements” seem paltry by comparison.

Consequently, I deeply begrudge that I must now write about myself here to address defamatory statements made against me. I never wanted to. I am not a public figure. I don’t hold public office nor do I ever plan to. I am a regular citizen of Nanaimo exercising my right to free speech. Yes, by the standards of average Canadians or even Canadian journalists, my experiences are unusual and noteworthy. But they are my own experiences and have nothing to do with my current writings. Besides, in this country we have the right to keep our experiences to ourselves.the_councillor

We are citizens of a free and democratic nation where the rule of law is respected. We have a right to express our opinions free from harassment, intimidation, personal attacks and defamation. This is not some despotic backwater where critics are persecuted for holding different opinions or daring to speak out against things they believe are wrong. This is Canada, yet at times over the past weeks I’ve truly wondered about where I am.

To be clear, I take no issue with the vast majority of comments that have been made about my articles. I wholeheartedly support the right of individuals to freely express their opinions about my reporting or the nature of this website. However, this freedom comes with a responsibility not to attack the personal reputations or impugn the integrity of anyone without substantiation or legal justification.

When I make a factual error, I correct it when it’s pointed out. If people think I have defamed them in any article on this website, I fully support their right to issue demands or to take legal action to defend their reputations, just as I have the right to defend myself and take action against those who defame me.

However, nothing gives anyone who feels aggrieved or threatened by my coverage the right to attack me or anyone connected to me on a personal level simply because they don’t like what I have written or don’t want others to read it. Yet that is what has occurred repeatedly over the past several months since I began writing about the current Nanaimo city council and its controversial CAO.

What follows is a summary of some recent incidents that are cause for serious concern:

April 6, 2016: ‘Stop the cruel, mean-spirited people’

On the afternoon and evening of April 5, 2016, Ms. Samra’s husband Nini Samra posted a variety of comments on the Facebook group A Better Nanaimo. I thought some of what he posted was highly inappropriate for the spouse of a senior local government official.

Certain of Mr. Samra’s comments seemed to divulge information about the permanent hiring process of his wife. He identified one of the final candidates as having been a former CAO of another city and also claimed that two other shortlisted candidates had dropped out of the running over money.

In a subsequent post on Facebook, I pointed to this incident as a symptom of a wider problem over the control of the city’s confidential information, which is a valid concern.

However, Ms. Samra’s response to her husband’s Facebook activity was quite different and rather unusual. Instead of acknowledging or apologizing for her husband’s actions, she penned an inflammatory “public appeal” to her Facebook followers calling on them “to help me stop FB Nanaimo groups from trolling me and my family.”

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Saying these nameless groups had subjected her to “defamatory and cruel posts” that had continued “without abatement,” Ms. Samra labeled her critics as “a mean spirited (sic) group of people.”

About her husband’s wholly inappropriate actions she said this: “My husband, having to watch and stay silent so long, recently attempted to engage in FB discussions to challenge people to check the facts, go to the city website for information, not just perpetuate rumors on (sic) online. I appreciate his efforts but this isn’t something that can be stopped by one person.”

The fact, however, is that no one I am aware of ever “trolled” Ms. Samra or members of her family. Her husband, on his own volition, decided to join the A Better Nanaimo group and post what appeared to be confidential city information, which he later deleted. Rather than justifying her husband’s actions, the correct response would have been for Ms.Samra to admit that her husband’s actions were at minimum misguided.

Instead of seeking to diffuse or deescalate the situation, Ms. Samra chose instead to go on the offensive and publicly issue what I believe is best described as a call to action to her followers. Playing the victim and appealing for help to “stop” her critics — without offering specific guidance on how to do that — is irresponsible for any public figure. Ms. Samra, who is also a highly trained lawyer, should know better.

That same day I received an angry private Facebook message from Louise Gilfoy a.k.a. Louise Michelle, a local resident and nurse who claims to have “known Tracy for over 20 years.”

Ms. Gilfoy’s message to me, coming out of the blue after nine months of not hearing from her, was short and to the point: “I can’t believe how disgusting you’re being to Tracy. Shame on you.”

That wouldn’t be the last time I would be hearing from Ms. Gilfoy.

Louise Gilfoy Facebook message

May 30, 2016: ‘Creeped out and obsessive’ cc: RCMP

I noticed a marked escalation in the nastiness of public comments by those closely aligned with Ms. Samra in the aftermath of my May 30th article, which concluded that Ms. Samra was directly involved in a serious injustice against Councillor Diane Brennan, Councillor Ian Thorpe and former Grants Advisory Committee member Mr. Don Bonner.cao_friend

That article was the first full-fledged piece I wrote about the goings on at City Hall and it remains the most detailed and well documented I have written to date. More importantly, nothing in that post has ever been specifically rebutted.

In his reaction to the post, Councillor Fuller, writing in all capital letters called it:”Total BULLSHIT!!!!!!!”

When a member of his group asked which part of it was rubbish, he was equally blunt: “ALL OF IT AND AM NOT GOING TO GET INTO GOING THROUGH PIECE BY PIECE,” he responded. “BELIEVE HIM OR ME YOUR CHOICE.”

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Clearly, there was some anger about my post, but no specific rebuttal. In fact, most of the comments about the article were about its potential impact, my possible motives for writing it and how many people had read or liked it.

A consensus appeared to be forming that my writing could be potentially damaging to the political fortunes of certain councillors come the next election in 2018. I was being seen as a threat by allies of the council majority led by Councillor Bill Bestwick.

Then Louise Gilfoy, the self proclaimed 20-year friend of Ms. Samra, reared her head again. This time it was publicly on Twitter, where she runs an anonymous account under the handle “ausername.”

In a message copied to the Nanaimo RCMP’s Twitter account, she wrote: “If I was #Nanaimo’s CAO, I’d be really creeped out by the obsessive post that Dominic Jones just made on Facebook. @NanaimoRCMP”

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For the first time, I became concerned that things were going to get uglier. Accusing someone of behaviour that warranted notifying the RCMP was an extreme response to what is essentially a well-researched work of advocacy journalism.

The words “obsess”, “obsessive” and “obsession” would become a recurring theme in future messages by several others, including Ms. Samra herself.

June 18, 2016: ‘You will continue to focus, in an unhealthy way, on me’

A milestone in News Nanaimo’s short history came in mid-June when I wrote about how a local developer had been caught in the crossfire of the war between the Mayor and the council majority led by Councillor Bestwick.

That piece clearly touched a nerve based on traffic to the story and the widespread public discussion that ensued. But again, rather that disputing specific facts in the article, most of the criticism was directed at me personally.

A bit of a firestorm was sparked by former Nanaimo Green Party deputy campaign manager Ivo Beitsma. He took issue with the “misleading” naming of News Nanaimo and questioned whether my articles were journalism or paid public relations, given that I also own a communications firm called Nine Orcas, which has a business license with the city.

Mysteriously, Mr. Beitsma’s comments on this website disappeared from public view. He then wrote a post to his Facebook friends urging them to defend his reputation since he was unable to comment on this site. Among the many who responded to his Facebook post where Councillor Fuller, Ms. Samra and Ms. Gilfoy.

Of note was Ms. Samra’s comment in the thread on Saturday, June 18, 2016 at 6:19 pm saying: “He’s doing the same to me. Fact check metre (sic) on his journalism reads pants on fire.”

In a reply comment I asked Ms. Samra what she thought I was doing to her. Several hours later she replied saying she had sent me a private message on Facebook.

In light of the earlier allegation copied to the RCMP saying I was obsessed, I thought it unwise to enter into any unofficial private communication with Ms. Samra. Instead, I asked that she post any response publicly. She declined.

At 11:03 pm that night, I received an email from Ms. Samra from her private Gmail account. That message, a copy of her private Facebook message to me, is irregular both because communication between city officials and the public is properly done through official city channels, and because of its contents, which echoed the same “obsession” allegation first put forward by Ms. Gilfoy over two weeks earlier.

samra_email

“I find your obsession with me and my family to be somewhat alarming,” Ms. Samra’s message began. “You post about me almost daily, some days the number of posts gets a bit crazy.”

Later she added: “I have resigned myself to the fact that you will continue to focus, in an unhealthy way, on me.”

I took these lines in her message, which are untrue, as a threat of a potential harassment complaint by Ms. Samra, which would be ludicrous considering her position as the city’s CAO and the focus of my writing being about city governance.

Then she issued a second threat, this one presumably of defamation: “Don’t mistake my decision not to correct you word for word, fact by fact, as you being correct in any of your stories. I suppose its entertaining for some but not many people take you seriously – that’s why I haven’t bothered to take any formal action. I’m not going to feed into your need to be an important journalist.”

Since my only interest in Ms. Samra is in her professional capacity as city manager and the message was sent from her private email account, I chose not to respond.

However, when I checked my Facebook messages I noticed that shortly before sending me the email, Ms. Samra had sent me a second message on Facebook at 10:59pm. This one indicated that she had developed an interest in my background.

“Your bio says you’re a journalist with RSA and Canadian papers can you tell me which ones?,” she asked.

samra_messenger

I did not accept the message or respond to it, but I found it curious that Ms. Samra would use the abbreviation RSA instead of spelling out South Africa. RSA is not a label I have or would ever use in reference to South Africa. This is because to me and to many others it implies allegiance to the former white-controlled government.

A month later my background in South Africa would become the subject of rampant ugly speculation and defamation.

June 19, 2016: ‘Does you wife still do work for the Integrity Group?’

loudmouth_mcgrathOne of the outright lies told about me and my wife is that we have some kind of connection to the Integrity Group, a company of lawyers specializing in workplace conflict resolution. This is the company Mayor Bill McKay hired to get city council to get along better. However, some on council think there was an ulterior agenda behind the company’s work and they have also refused to pay an outstanding bill of more than $20,000 to the company.

While my wife and I are critical of a council not paying its bills to service providers due to internal bickering, we have absolutely no current or past connection to Integrity Group.

But that didn’t stop the lies, which first appeared in a comment made on this website by Tim McGrath, a loudmouth fixture at city council meetings who once pledged on Ms. Samra’s Facebook page to help her “in any way” if she called on him.

In his comment, which drips with sleaze, Mr. McGrath wrote: “Maybe Domenic (sic) could ask his wife about the words honesty, integrity and accuracy. Domenic (sic), does your wife Pam still do work for ‘Integrity group’? …Is there a pecuniary interest between Domenic, his spouse and McKay?”

mcgrath_integrity

I immediately informed McGrath that there was no truth to his statement and I deleted it from the site. However, the allegation would continue to be revisited again in the coming weeks, including by Councillor Fuller.

Again, I reiterate that there is no business, work or personal connection between either my wife or I to Integrity Group. Anyone claiming otherwise is a liar.

July 9, 2016: ‘Attacks and singling out against aboriginal people involved in city hall.’

On July 9, 2016, Snuneymuxw First Nation (SFN) councillor Doug White published a Facebook post that many perceived as being directed at my coverage even though he never specifically mentioned me. The post came three days after I published an article highlighting Councillor Bill Yoachim’s poor meeting attendance at the Regional District of Nanaimo (see Meet Nanaimo’s $500 per hour councillor).

Mr. White’s post said he was disgusted and disturbed by “attacks and singling out against aboriginal people involved in city hall.”

Let me pause here to say that race is not a factor in how I treat people. I am certainly acutely aware and sensitive to issues of race, but I will not treat anyone differently because of it. No better, no worse, just the same.

For the purposes of my articles to date, Mr. Yoachim is a city councillor, and Ms. Samra is the city’s CAO. Nothing else about them is relevant, and from what I have seen in the comments responding to Mr. White’s post, most informed observers don’t see my reporting to date as having anything to do with anyone’s race or cultural background.

Nonetheless, some people with axes to grind did make the connection between my articles and Mr. White’s post, and they had a field day with it. To me, however, if there was a connection, then it was just Mr. White attempting to deflect attention away from his friend’s lavish pay rate — a fact he failed to even mention — by directing his supporters’ anger to “the status quo and old boys of Nanaimo.”

Since Mr. White didn’t specifically name me or point to any of my articles, I saw no need to directly address his statements in that post.

dougwhite_july9

July 16, 2016: ‘I’m getting a little curious about Propaganda Jones’

The thing about the Internet is that it doesn’t go back very far. Most news organizations didn’t get online until the later part of the 1990s. Test it yourself by trying the Globe and Mail for a name or news event from the 90s and you won’t find anything going back further than 2000.

It’s even harder to find old news articles in places where the Internet is not as advanced as in the developed world. South Africa is one such place. So if you’re trying to find news articles someone wrote as a journalist in South Africa or Canada between 1987 and 1998, you’re unlikely to find much on the Internet.

Bear that in mind as you consider the following sequence of events.

At 8:41am on Saturday July 16, 2016, I published an article on the the city’s controversial new committee structure. That article caused agitation for Ms. Samra. She had emailed me with comments several times in the preceding days, twice the Friday evening before it was published, and then again on the Saturday morning after it appeared.fullers_friend

I decided after publishing the article to get on with my day and pay no attention to the usual Facebook vitriol that ensues after I post something. However, early that afternoon I received a text message from a friend telling me I needed to see something on Councillor Fuller’s Facebook group.

When I went to look I saw that earlier that morning, at 10:18am, Terry Lee Wagar, a close friend of Councillor Fuller, had posted a highly defamatory comment which read: “I’m getting a little curious about Propaganda Jones. I know that he left South Africa for some reason, where he allegedly was a ‘journalist’, but I know little about his writings there, or why he left. I can’t help but wonder if he didn’t have connections to the brutal and evil apartheid government and dissemination of reactionary propaganda? I wonder what google (sic) says about the man, and I wonder what the people back in Africa have to say about him and why he left his homeland after apartheid fell.”

In response to this, another Fuller group stalwart and vitriolic loose cannon, Kevin Storrie, chimed in: “now there’s a conspiracy theory, but the questions are relevant. Perhaps might explain the attacks on the first nations people associated with council. Just sayin’ “

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To say that I was appalled and deeply insulted by these defamatory remarks is an understatement. From Ms. Samra’s earlier questions about my “RSA” experience, I’d expected that there would be some probing of my prior journalism experience. But I figured if people did their homework properly, they’d eventually be embarrassed that they even asked.

I never for a second expected such a flagrant and vicious attack on my character in the absence of any facts or research to back it up. In my sphere of reference, you simply don’t make up scenarios in your head and then publish them without thought to consequences. Yet that’s exactly what these people were doing.

But it was to get worse, much worse.

Things got truly weird when young local activist Matt Henstock, who was highly critical of Wagar’s and Storrie’s comments, posted a link to an article on the UK’s prestigious Guardian newspaper website that mentioned my role in bringing to justice South Africa’s worse racist murderer, Louis Van Schoor.

Suddenly, Councillor Fuller said he didn’t think the Dominic Jones mentioned in the Guardian article was me. He claimed to have information that there was another journalist by the same name at the same time writing similar things, but he was black.

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Of course, I knew this was nonsense because I was there at the time and there were no other journalists in the country, local or foreign, with the same name as me. Shortly before 3:00 pm, I decided I needed to contact Councillor Fuller to set the record straight and demand that he remove the offending comments and apologize.

Not being a member of his group and unable to post comments directly, I sent Councillor Fuller a message on Facebook messenger. After 10 minutes without a response from Councillor Fuller, my wife, who was a member of the group, posted a comment confirming that I was indeed the Dominic Jones mentioned in the article, informing him of the related award nomination, and explaining that the comments in his group were highly defamatory.

At this juncture, it would have been proper for Councillor Fuller to immediately shut down further comments on the post, assess what facts he actually had, and then remove the defamatory comments if they couldn’t be substantiated. That is the correct procedure in the absence of any factual substantiation or legal justification for statements that are claimed to be defamatory.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, the comments remained published and new ones persisted with Councillor Fuller now becoming the leading participant in a discussion that sought to discredit my and my wife’s contention that the Dominic Jones in the Guardian article was in fact me.

And then — almost 2.5 hours after we had contacted him — Councillor Fuller posted what might explain his predilection to doubt the information my wife and I had given him. He had other information, from a source that he clearly trusted more than us.

At 5:26 pm, Councillor Fuller posted the following comment: “Received this from someone wanting to remain anonymous: ‘I have followed his path to South Africa and not been able to find much. With exception there is another Dominic Jones in South Africa doing similar writings but he is black.”

fuller_anonmessage

Who was this “someone wanting to remain anonymous” who had been looking into my background as a journalist in South Africa? I have asked Councillor Fuller via Facebook messenger, but he declined to answer.

The next morning, with the defamatory comments still up and new comments still flowing freely — mostly about peoples’ inability to find anything online about me in South Africa — Councillor Fuller would finally reveal the identity of this mysterious other Dominic Jones. He is a young lawyer and blogger from Atlanta, GA, who wouldn’t have been more than a baby in 1989. That Dominic Jones has never actually visited South Africa much less worked there.

But even then, Councillor Fuller could not accept that he was wrong. I was too old, he said, to have been 21 at the time of the events mentioned in the Guardian article.

What Councillor Fuller failed to comprehend from reading the Guardian article was that I wasn’t 21 when Van Schoor was finally convicted in 1992. That’s how old I was in 1989 when I first broke the story of Van Schoor’s terrible killing spree, which left 41 people dead, including children, and up to a 100 others severely wounded. It took three years of research, many articles in multiple publications around the world and constant pressure to finally get the authorities to act and secure a conviction in 1992.

It seemed to me that there was only one way to put the stupid speculation to rest. I’d need to either show Councillor Fuller my birth certificate (I offered), or I’d need to produce some evidence that only the Dominic Jones mentioned in the Guardian article would likely have access to.

That’s when I decided to post photographs on my Facebook profile of my original press clippings of the first and last Van Schoor stories I wrote. I did this on Sunday, July 17 at 12:30pm. And while these would ultimately provide the tangible proof Councillor Fuller and his fellow doubters needed, it was going to take two more days of damaging and cavalier commenting for that to happen.

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Several private citizens tried to intervene during this period to get Councillor Fuller, his friend Terry Wagar and several others to stop. They included Rolanda Murray, Sandi Blankenship and Darragh Worledge. Ms. Worledge contacted me and shared information on Councillor Fuller’s group that went a long way to end the speculation.

Early on the morning of Tuesday, July 19, Councillor Fuller finally published an apology to me on his Facebook group, which I believe is the first time he has ever done that.

To say that attempts to smear me and my work on News Nanaimo had backfired is probably being charitable. Councillor Fuller lost a lot of credibility with many people over this debacle. And that anonymous emailer who influenced him has a lot to answer for as well.

At first, I was willing to accept Councillor Fuller’s apology even though I suspected that at least part of it had been written for him by someone else. But then later that day, at 6:32pm, he published a new post where he made a comment that puts paid to the sincerity of his “apology”.

Pointing to two of the news clippings I had posted on my profile, he said he hoped they would put an end to the ongoing debate. Then he ended with this: “Yes I know it could have been a far easier process, but then we wouldn’t have had so much fun would we.

From Ms. Samra’s public appeal for her followers to “stop” the “cruel” posts by “mean-spirited” people, to the accusations of me being obsessed, to the false claims of having a hidden financial motive, to eventually being accused of racism and being a propagandist for the Apartheid regime, there has been nothing “fun” about it for me and my family.

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In my work as a journalist I was often the target of people who didn’t want me to write or publish. Many tried but none succeeded in preventing me from telling my stories.

To borrow from Marty Barron, editor of the Washington Post, when Donald Trump banished his reporters from Trump campaign events, let me end by saying this: I will continue to cover Nanaimo city council and its administration just as I have all along — honorably, honestly, accurately, energetically, and unflinchingly. I am proud of my work on News Nanaimo and I am going to keep at it.

Anyone who has a problem with that has many proper procedures and legal avenues available to them. They should use them — just as I am.

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