How I got the story: Tim Bousquet on Halifax mayor Peter Kelly and Mary Thibeault
Mary Thibeault’s estate has yet to be settled seven years after her death, and the blame lies with the executor of her will: Halifax mayor Peter Kelly. Rhiannon Russell reports on how Tim Bousquet investigated this story for Halifax alt-weekly The Coast and effectively ended the political career of the mayor of the largest city in Atlantic Canada.
An elderly Halifax widow dies. She leaves a will, dividing up her estate among 18 beneficiaries – friends, family, and charities. Seven years later, her estate has yet to be settled, and heirs have not received their full share. Two of the charities were, until recently, unaware that they are to receive anything at all. And the fault for this lies with the will’s executor: Halifax mayor Peter Kelly.
In an investigation published in Halifax’s alternative weekly newspaper The Coast on Feb. 16, Tim Bousquet uncovered that Kelly, a close friend of the widow, Mary Thibeault, failed to file an inventory of her estate until eight months after her death – and after he’d transferred over $160,000 out of Thibeault’s personal bank account and into his own.
The exposé is the result of an 11-month investigation into probate court records and bank documents that determine Kelly mishandled Thibeault’s estate and allegedly pocketed money that she didn’t leave him directly in her will.
Bousquet, The Coast’s news editor, says that although he had no idea what the full dimensions of the story would be when he started working on it, “by around Christmas-time…I knew that [Kelly’s] political career was over,” he says.
And he was right. In the wake of Bousquet’s investigation, Peter Kelly has announced that he will not run for a fourth term as the mayor of the largest city in Atlantic Canada.
Bousquet started his research by talking to people in Halifax. “This is a relatively small town, even though it’s a city, and I just went around and asked a lot of people a lot of questions,” he says.
He obtained documents from the probate court including a copy of the inventory Kelly filed months after Thibeault’s death (it’s supposed to be filed within 90 days). He also got copies of Thibeault’s bank records and copies of the cheques, signed by Thibeault, that Kelly wrote for himself after she died.
For nearly four years, Kelly took no action on the estate. He didn’t inform beneficiaries of their inheritances. Finally, in 2009, Thibeault’s sister, one of the heirs, wrote a letter to the court, complaining that the estate had yet to be settled.
The burning question is why so much time went by without the court following up with Kelly and without any of the heirs speaking up.
“That’s an issue here that I’m trying to pursue with the court,” Bousquet says. He’s not sure if it’s a matter of it neglecting responsibility.
Sources were also a crucial part of the investigation. For instance, in 2010 some of the heirs hired a lawyer and confronted Kelly, asking him to step down as executor and pay back the $145,000 he removed from Thibeault’s account. (Kelly claims that about $16,000 of the 160,000+ that he took was used for legitimate expenses of settling the estate.) Kelly’s response to the heirs?
“He would only return the $145,000 and step down as executor on the conditions that: the heirs sign a confidentiality agreement … and all Kelly's lawyer fees be paid by the estate, as rendered by the lawyer, without question or challenge by the beneficiaries,” writes Bousquet.
Some of the heirs confirmed this with Bousquet. “I had to build trust with sources and build a relationship with them in order to get information,” he says. Many are anonymous.
Stories like this one that are laden with facts and figures can often be a struggle for readers to get through. Yet, the piece is surprisingly clear, and Bousquet recounts particular dollar figures at just the right time so they don’t slip from the reader’s memory.
This was a conscious effort. “It is a very number-heavy story,” he says. “I saw right from the start that I would have to break it down into little pieces.”
Bousquet credits his editors with helping him do this.
With this story, as with most, the research, compilation and interviewing took the most time. Bousquet wrote his first draft in one day, and then the story went through eight more drafts, with The Coast’s lawyer scanning it as well.
“That was much more time-consuming,” Bousquet says.
These days, you don’t see many weeklies breaking investigative stories, but, as Bousquet points out, “Hardly any newspapers, whether they’re alt-weeklies or dailies or whatever, do much…of [that] anymore.”
With shrinking budgets, stories requiring lots of research and background are too costly for some outlets to produce.
“The alt-weekly model works without news, much less investigative news,” Bousquet says. “I’m extremely fortunate to work for The Coast. The owners…are graduates from a local j-school, and they have maintained a commitment to having a news presence in the paper.”
“There was a few days lag there when they were trying to wrap their head around what the story was, but after they did that, they’ve done well I think,” he says.
Kelly, who’s been mayor for 12 years, referred questions about the story to his lawyer, but he did say in a statement: “Her wishes will be fulfilled and I will take (the lawyer’s) instructions to get there. I am not making any excuses. Whatever problems have arisen have been because of my own tardiness. Everything is accounted for and will be distributed according to her wishes."
“If I say so myself, it’s a big story,” Bousquet says. “It’s not something that can just be ignored.”
Check out Bousquet's story, A Trust Betrayed, on The Coast's website.