Arbitrator sets aside government staffer's firing after Twitter exchange with UCP press secretary

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An arbitrator has ordered a government of Alberta staffer's dismissal to be set aside after he was fired following a Twitter exchange involving a UCP cabinet minister and his press secretary.

Jeffery Nichols worked for the Alberta Surface Rights Board (SRB) from 2014 to June of 2020.

He was fired after a series of tweets in response to posts from then-Minister of Municipal Affairs Kaycee Madu and his press secretary at the time, Timothy Gerwing.

In a June 28 ruling, Arbitrator Francis Price called the case "just another example" of "disastrous exchanges on social media that have led to personal and professional fallout."

"Dismissal was not warranted, but was an excessive measure of discipline."

The ruling was not a total acquittal of Nichols' actions.

Price ruled Nichols breached a workplace code of conduct with a tweet that referred to Madu as "too much of a coward."

Price ordered Nichols to be reinstated "at once" without any loss of seniority. He is also entitled to compensation and benefits for time lost away from work.

Nichols now lives out of the province and says it's too early to say what his next steps will be. 

"It was a stressful time, but I'm relieved that it's over and I'm content with the decision." 

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees declined to comment.

'DO YOU SERVE THE SRB?'

On June 7, Nichols was among those who attended a Black Lives Matter rally at the Alberta legislature. 

Madu, the municipal affairs minister at the time, tweeted that he had agreed to speak at the event, “but was told by organizers that I could not.”

Two days after the rally, Madu tweeted this video with the title “stop divisive left-wing identity politics” and accusing the "bitterly angry" Opposition NDP of working to get his invitation rescinded.

The bitterly angry Alberta NDP told me to reflect on why I was not welcome to speak at a Black Lives Matter event at the Legislature. I have. Here are my thoughts. #ableg pic.twitter.com/oFiQXIhfzo

— Kaycee Madu (@KayceeMaduYEG) June 9, 2020

Nichols joined others in responding to the tweeted video, posting four tweets in reaction, including one replying to Madu’s account. 

Gerwing copied one of those tweets and used it to launch a new thread, eventually outing Nichols and his job with the ministry of municipal affairs and the SRB.

“Really Jeffery?” read one of Gerwing’s tweets. “Do you serve the SRB?” read another.

Nichols responded, "Are you trying to blackmail me?" 

Price characterized Gerwing's tweets as harassment, writing that where Nichols worked "was information that should not have been released by Mr. Gerwing."

Gerwing is now the director of communications for the UCP caucus. He did not respond to requests for comment.

Nichols tweeted an apology to Madu and Gerwing on June 10, "I see that my criticism of Mr Madu’s tolerance of bad apples in his caucus was ruder than it needed to be. I apologize for any offence."

Madu is now the minister of justice and solicitor general. His office also did not respond to requests for comment.

'A COUPLE OF LIVID FOLKS'

The ruling outlines how the government reacted within a day to Nichols' tweets.

“I am CERTAIN we need to take disciplinary action … we have a couple of livid folks,” reads an internal email “from the chief of staff” as cited in the ruling.

Madu asked for “a full account” within five days, according to the same email.

On June 22, Nichols was given a dismissal notice that read in part, "this action is being taken as a result of your significant lack of judgment, integrity, honesty as well as your misuse of Government of Alberta equipment."

As grounds for termination, it cited Nichols' tweets as having violated several workplace policies while also accusing him of using his government-issued computer to post those tweets.

Price found the "coward" tweet from Nichols broke code of conduct rules, but otherwise rejected the government's arguments, saying while Nichols' tweets were "harsh" political statements, they "did not amount to ridicule or sarcasm, nor were they designed as disrespectful."

He also ruled Nichols hadn’t used government resources and wasn't identifiable as a government staffer until being outed by Gerwing.

“Whoever drafted the letter of dismissal jumped to the wrong conclusion as to the posts that were made.”

Price also cited the unprompted public apology from Nichols as well as the quality of his prior work in arriving at his ruling.

“We are satisfied that the appropriate discipline in this case is to order the providing of a written reprimand.”