Bonnie Rose Negotiation #2

July 4th, 2021

In our previous happy negotiation article, we covered the first Bonnie Rose meeting in Toronto.  In today’s installment, we cover the sequel; the five-hour negotiation at a closed coffee shop in Calgary, two months after the first.

Some basics;  Bonnie Rose was the President of Standards at the Canadian Standards Association (“CSA” / “Civil Service”).  We were, in 2014, two-years into CSA’s lawsuit against PS Knight and its affable owner (that’s me) and the now deceased founder of PS Knight, Peter Knight.  Bonnie was dispatched to handle the growing crisis and get that Gordon guy under control.

We met at the Sheraton Hotel, just across from the main terminal of the Calgary International Airport.  The Sheraton has a small coffee shop on the second floor.  We sat down, commenced coffeeing, and got to business.

I was confident about this meeting.  I knew that the information I’d given Bonnie at the first meeting was accurate. I was pretty sure that by now she’d checked everything I’d said, and found it correct, and found that rather worrying.

I also knew that Bonnie was under a lot of pressure.  By the time of this meeting, what had already been exposed through a wealth of whistleblowers was well evidenced and criminal in nature.  All this muck was made at the executive level, which meant that Bonnie and her immediate colleagues would be targets in any criminal investigation.  Bonnie, then, could face prison time, and she was smart enough to know it.

But Bonnie was constrained from above.  Then CEO, Ash Sahi, wouldn’t entertain any resolution that didn’t get the Civil Service what it wanted.  That is, Sahi’s only option for resolution was a total crushing victory for CSA.  That attitude didn’t leave a lot of room for negotiation. 

Knowing this, I wasn’t there to get a resolution.  It just wasn’t realistic, given the lack of leeway at CSA.  Rather, I was there to gauge how confident CSA really was, on the inside, in the executive suite.  That’s a tougher play than negotiation to resolution.  It took some planning.

Coffees in hand, I opened the conversation with some pleasantries, knowing that Bonnie’s engineering mind wouldn’t likely read much into them.  We lightly chatted about the Enron scandal.  This was planned, by the way, but Bonnie didn’t seem wise to it.  Stroke of luck; Bonnie was already well read on Enron.  “I find that story terribly interesting,” she said.  I chatted along, suggesting that CSA was like Enron in so many ways, sly smile as I did so.  I was setting a trap.

Next, I raised the issue of my father, Peter Knight, on the Civil Service’ claim.  He was in his mid-80’s and in failing health.  Peter Knight by then had no ownership interest in the PS Knight Co, was not involved in its operations, or in writing its publications.  There was no reason for putting him on the claim beyond bloody-mindedness and, as we’d come to see, extortion.  Bonnie said that they hadn’t considered his age or his health.  Confronted by the obvious bloody-mindedness of keeping Peter Knight on the claim, Bonnie committed to have Peter Knight released from litigation the following week.  I’d shamed her into that.

It’s worth noting by the way, that this commitment made by Bonnie Rose on behalf of CSA was the first of three Civil Service commitments to remove Peter Knight from the litigation.  They broke all three commitments.  The commitment Bonnie made was broken a week after she made it.

Struggling to find common ground, Bonnie spoke in surprising bluntness about PS Knight’s publications. “Frankly,” she said, “your books are better than ours.”  She showed me their sales figures for CSA’s Handbook.  They were good sales, but Bonnie indicated that she wasn’t sure if they would keep the Handbook at all, as it wasn’t really breaking even. She disclosed CSA’s fulfillment costs; they were triple what PS Knight was paying. Likewise, their freight costs were high -horrifying high.  As far as I was concerned, the CSA had rubbish packaging, rubbish service, and needlessly massive cost.  The Civil Service was running a company operation like civil servants, not like businesspeople.  They had no eye to cost and no incentive to streamline operations.

As for sales, I pointed out that CSA’s Handbook sales wouldn’t be so impressive if they had to earn those sales.  Bonnie looked at me quizzically.  I reminded her that the Civil Service was rigging the curriculum processes in the Country.  They were using their regulatory authority to mandate that only CSA books could be used in electrical courses, locking us out of the academic market.  Entire provinces were being blocked at once, just by mandating CSA’s products as the only approved textbooks.

Indeed, we sold one Commercial & Industrial book into the academic market in the year of this meeting.  Just one, folks.  Everything else was sold outside the classroom.  It’s still that bad, by the way.

Bonnie hadn’t pondered this before.  She was still new in the job, after all.  The reality of what her Division was doing didn’t sit well with her.  The CSA’s conduct was unethical, underhand, it was abuse of regulatory authority and it was illegal; a massive breach of the Competition Act.  Bonnie was uncomfortable, and it showed.

Then it came out that CSA had used PS Knight’s Commercial & Industrial to develop their Handbook.  They sort-of had it on their desk when drafting their own book.  It’s an unhappy culture that comes from this sort of thing.  The Civil Service tries to compete commercially within the market that they’re regulating, they fail, then they try to rig the market to force a form of success.  This breeds resentment.  At some level they know that PS Knight earned its place through hard work, whereas the Civil Service had to cheat to get their dominance.  In the Civil Service, PS Knight becomes an ever-present reminder of CSA’s illegitimacy.

Our coffee cups were long dry by this point.  We’d discovered that the Sheraton coffee shop was only open for breakfast and again later in the evening, and we’d arrived that day just a few minutes before closing.  The place was now very closed.  We were the only customers.  And there we were, four hours after closing, and service had dropped off.

Well, from Bonnie’s perspective we hadn’t made much progress, but from my perspective the first four hours were a sort of lead-up, a deliberate fatiguing to the planned fishing for inside information on CSA’s confidence in litigation.  Bonnie was winding down; I was gearing up.

Bonnie put her booklet away (she’d made copious notes) and asked me for my honest appraisal of what was going on.  I told her that I had sufficient evidence to know that CSA was actually a Civil Service Agency, that it had gone rogue in the absence of oversight, that it had violated the law so dramatically, so frequently, and so habitually, that it no longer recognized the significance of its actions, nor the dangers it was courting.

“It’s like Enron,” I said, “a house of cards.”  There, right there.  The trap.

I had prepared for this.  I’d mentioned Enron at the start, so the mention over four hours later would feel natural.  I’d rehearsed how to deliver these lines precisely, while looking spontaneous, as though I was thinking through my wording as I went.

“Did you notice how Jeff Skilling went to prison, but Lou Pai wasn’t even prosecuted?”  Bonnie knew about both Enron executives.  “Pai wasn’t hit because he got out before the collapse, whereas Skilling was still there, being crushed by the falling cards.”  Bonnie nodded, knowing the story.  “Bonnie, you’re in trouble and you don’t know the extent of it.  What if CSA isn’t really a private not-for-profit?  What laws would’ve been broken by behaving as though it were private?  Right?  What about document falsification?”  She knew about this already, having verified it.  “And what about all the fraudulent testing -that could be killing people!”  Then I closed it; “Look…. Bonnie,” I was pausing for effect, “it might be an idea to… to think about working with me on this, confidentially… on what you know, if not now then, you know, pretty soon.”  Bonnie was silent, expressionless, stunned, like a deer in the headlights; I was actually trying to flip a senior Civil Service executive, during a negotiation, to work for me against her employer.  “Well, I, I, uh…” -yes, she actually stuttered, “I like to keep my options open.” 

And that was it; flustered, she had accidentally dipped her cards.  When you flat-foot someone, usually their first reaction is the tell, the accurate read.  Yes, Bonnie was indeed worried about CSA’s conduct and her own liabilities because of it. 

I just got the confirmation I’d been hoping for, but I wanted to cement it.  “You know, Bonnie, like Skilling and Pai, once the cards start falling it’s too late.  I might be hearing things more quickly than you,” referencing the whistleblowers from her own Department, “so if you’re open to it, perhaps I could discretely advise you… before things get out of hand.”  Yes, she was in favor of that.  Bonnie reached for her bag, took out her business cards and prepared to give me one.  She stopped herself, and taking a pen she handwrote her home phone number and personal email on the back of her CSA card, and handed it over.  “This way it’s offline,” she said, “more secure.”

Five hours.  That’s what it took.  As we walked together from the hotel back to the airport, Bonnie made small talk about the RestoreCSA site and how much work it must be to run it.  I obliged, politely bantering, but inside I was soaring in total victory.  This time I’d pulled my punches on specific CSA liabilities. The only new things I shared at this meeting, however damning they were, were stories that I knew could be immediately confirmed by inquiry on her end.  She would check them out, knowing Bonnie, and she’d find them accurate.  I’d given her more damning reasons to fret her freedom.

It seems that Bonnie went back to Toronto, confirmed all the other issues I’d raised, saw that they checked out, and took it to the CEO.  She was likely rebuffed by Sahi, and immediately thereafter made the decision to get out.  It meant that she’d tendered her resignation within days of her return to Toronto.  Looks to me like Bonnie saw her own legal jeopardy, was spooked of the risk, and broke and ran within weeks of the meeting.

This second Bonnie Rose negotiation was hugely important in gauging Civil Service confidence in their own position.  From then on, CSA’s bombastic claims of confidence weren’t taken too seriously.  It informed our legal team in positioning our filings and arguments in Court, and it gave us basis to predict what CSA would do when pushed.  We used this to good effect in the years that followed.

And comically, we also leveraged the Enron reference a couple of times, including in the distribution of CSA House of Cards playing cards throughout Parliament. 

Increasingly in the years that followed, the Civil Service has resorted to stacking the deck against us; rigging trials, arranging Rulings, generally trying to cheat their way to an illegitimate win.  It’s just like how they sell their books, really. 

But we’ve changed the game in the last year.  Sunlight, remember?  The corruption of the Civil Service will be their ruin.  Sunlight is coming, my friends.