Thursday, December 1, 2016

Elton Tickets Land Canadian border Guard in Hot Water

A Canadian border guard has lost his bid to overturn the two-week suspension that he received for accepting free concert tickets while clearing superstar Elton John through customs.

Border services officer Charles Stewart had asked the federal labour relations board to reduce his penalty to a three-day suspension — he said he was star-struck by Captain Fantastic — but adjudicator Pierre-Marc Champagne rejected that appeal.

"He knew what his obligations were that day, and his behaviour cannot be excused because of his excitement at meeting a celebrity," Champagne said in a recent judgment.

Stewart and a co-worker, Brandon Merrill, were assigned by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) to check John and his crew through customs and immigration at Lethbridge Airport on April 24, 2012.

The flamboyant singer, one of the most successful solo artists of all time, was arriving in Alberta to perform three sold-out shows in Lethbridge, Red Deer and Grande Prairie.

At the labour relations board hearing, Merrill testified that Stewart brought his wife, an Elton John fan, to the CBSA office on the day in question.

Merrill said he boarded the star's private jet with Stewart, who conducted the primary examination of the plane and its six passengers. Merrill checked their passports then walked down the stairs to the tarmac.

Stewart, he said, remained onboard talking with John's personal assistant. When the assistant stepped off the plane, he asked Merrill if he "would like tickets to the concert as well." Merrill declined. The assistant, Merrill said, then offered his phone number and told the border guards to call him if they wanted to go to that night's show in Lethbridge.

The concert had sold out within an hour and floor tickets were going for as much as $500 on the resale market.

Merrill testified that Stewart went into the CBSA office and called a supervisor, Darren Lynch, to ask if he could accept the concert offer. Lynch told him not to accept the tickets, which is the same advice he had received days earlier from senior superintendent Doug Bakke, whom Stewart had approached about what to do if offered tickets during the clearance process.

Nonetheless, Stewart tried to call the assistant's number. When that didn't work — it had been copied incorrectly — he went to the arena box office, identified himself as a CBSA officer, and asked to pick up his complimentary tickets. No tickets had been left at the window. The event manager was called, Elton John's assistant confirmed the offer, and two second row tickets were handed to Stewart and his wife.

Unfortunately for Stewart, a volunteer security guard at the event, CBSA employee Kyle Reindl, overheard the conversation on his radio about "passes for a CBSA guy who cleared the plane." Reindl went to see who received the tickets and later reported the incident to border agency officials.

Stewart and his wife were so close to the stage that they appeared on Jumbotron images at the concert.

The CBSA subsequently launched an internal investigation. The agency's code of conduct prohibits employees from accepting any gift in the course of their duties since it could be perceived as a bribe.

Stewart was handed a two-week suspension without pay.

But he appealed that penalty to the labour relations board, arguing that he had been honest and contrite about his misconduct and deserved a break given his past service. Stewart told the board that he accepted the tickets in a moment of weakness because he wanted to treat his wife.

But Champagne, an adjudicator with the Public Service Labour Relations and Employment Board, rejected the grievance and suggested Stewart could have lost his job for his determined attempt to gain a valuable, personal benefit.

Stewart, he said, knew that his behaviour was unacceptable based on his experience and the advice of his superiors. Champagne said Stewart's expressions of remorse rang hollow: "An employee motivated by greed who takes advantage of his position to benefit himself and his wife deserves discipline, including potentially termination."

A spokesman for Elton John did not respond to a request for comment.

- Edmonton Sun

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