It may be a case that is unique in legal annals in Canada.
Sean Brennan, a Manitoba Crown prosecutor since 2000, was fired in early July after he reported a situation in which a leading Winnipeg aerospace company made a substantial donation to a charity dear to Brennan’s heart at about the same time that Brennan dropped charges against the company charged with failing to follow required safety guidelines — which resulted in a workplace accident.
“It’s an unusual case,” says Allan Fineblit, CEO of the Law Society of Manitoba. “This was not a situation where the lawyer personally benefitted. The money went to a good cause.”
Professor Arthur Schafer, director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba, however doesn’t see Brennan’s actions as differing substantially from any other “garden variety” conflict-of-interest situation despite the former prosecutor not gaining anything personally.
“Legal Ethics 101,” Schafer notes, “is that people involved in enforcing the law have the obligation to exercise his discretion impartially. It doesn’t matter if you are a judge, a police officer, or a lawyer. You cannot put yourself in a position where self-interest may affect judgment. That could be a personal benefit or a benefit to your family or favourite charity. It’s not complicated.”
Since March, 2000 (as reported in the Winnipeg Free Press), Sean Brennan has served as Agape Table’s chairman of the board of directors. Agape is a Christian charitable organization that provides community programming and nutrition to hundreds of clients daily. Agape bestowed on Brennan one of its 2011 Manitoba Service Excellence Awards in the community-service category, praising him as a “role model, mentor, coach and leader to the board, staff and clients of Agape Table”.
Three years ago, Bristol Aerospace was charged under the Workplace Safety and Health Act, following an investigation into its workplace safety practices after one of its employees was slightly injured on the job in 2008. Brennan was assigned to prosecute. Late in 2011, without any explanation, he entered a stay of proceedings.
At about the same time, Bristol made a $65,000 donation to Agape Table.
Despite reporting the situation to his superiors and stating he played no role in Bristol’s decision to donate to the charity, the provincial government investigated Brennan’s handling of the file. It determined he committed a serious breach of the code of conduct and ethics governing lawyers and recently notified him that he was being dismissed with cause.
Brennan is reportedly considering filing a grievance, but neither he nor any of the other players in the case are commenting.
The Law Society of Manitoba is also investigating the case.
“We have had a complaint about Sean Brennan and we are obligated to look into it to determine if there is any merit to it,” says Fineblit. “We have written to Mr. Brennan asking for a statement outlining his position. We want to know what he knew and if the donation was part of a deal or occurred while the investigation was underway.”