Slowly — so slowly — British Columbians might be moving closer to some answers in the B.C. Rail corruption case.
It’s been a dismal performance from the courts and the politicians. More than five years after police raided legislature officers and talked about the long reach of organized crime, the affair hangs over the government and the three accused.
That might change with B.C. Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth Bennett’s ruling that the government must produce e-mails from Premier Gordon Campbell and a clutch of current and former cabinet ministers and their staff.
Or it might sink the whole affair even deeper into an ethical and legal quagmire.
We’ll find that out, perhaps, Aug. 17. That’s when the government’s lawyer will tell the court whether the e-mails exist, or if some or all have been destroyed. (An astonishing number of lawyers — all taxpayer-funded — are involved in the case. Costs have been estimated at more than $10 million and counting.)
The government’s story has been changing.
Last month, its lawyer introduced a deposition from an official saying the e-mails from 2002 to 2005 and all backups had been erased.
That appeared to violate government policy, which calls for records to be kept for seven years. (Transitory e-mails — like a message confirming a lunch date — are exempted.)
Last week, the government offered a new deposition from the same officials saying that at least some of the relevant e-mails had existed but were ordered destroyed in May, during the election campaign.
If true, that’s serious on several levels.
First, destroying evidence is a criminal offence. The relevance of the e-mails to the trial should have been obvious since the raids. It was certainly clear once the defence lawyers asked for the documents in 2007. The RCMP has already been asked to review the information to see if an investigation is warranted.
Second, if the evidence is gone, defence lawyers have a reasonable argument that the charges should be dismissed due to the government’s abuse of the process. That would leave the questions unanswered.
Third, the government would face a political crisis. Campbell has pledged complete openness and co-operation with the investigation since the days after the raid.
Barring some remarkable explanation — I can’t even think of an example — the destruction of the e-mails being sought by the court would look like a cover-up. And while governments can escape a great many failings and missteps, cover-ups tend to taint their reputations and relationships with the public permanently.
It’s a potentially toxic mess, stemming from the broken 2001 campaign promise not to sell B.C. Rail but spreading to include questions about the influence of well-connected Liberal insiders, the legitimacy of the bidding process and, now, the missing evidence.
The Crown is alleging Dave Basi, ministerial assistant to then finance minister Gary Collins, and Bob Virk, who held the same position with transport minister Judith Reid, accepted benefits from Omnitrax, one of the B.C. Rail bidders. In return, the Crown says, they provided inside information about the bidding process.
The defence denies that and says the two were actually acting on behalf of their political masters. The bidding was rigged all along to ensure CN got B.C. Rail, the defence alleges. The government wanted Omnitrax kept involved to preserve the appearance of a real bidding process. (CP Rail had dropped out because it believed the bidding process was unfair; a partner bidding with Omnitrax had pulled the plug for the same reason.)
And all of this, remember, after a promise by Campbell not to sell B.C. Rail.
It is a bizarre situation that two provincial elections have been held since the raids and allegations of corruption, with no answers for the public and only silence from the government.
And, if the e-mails have been destroyed and the case is thrown out, those answers might still be years away — particularly if the investigation into the destruction of evidence moves at the same halting pace.
Footnote: The NDP will undoubtedly seek a public inquiry if the case is thrown out. But Campbell has so far stonewalled on the case and the vanished e-mails. The tactic has worked and it’s unlikely that he would now accept an independent inquiry into the scandal.