Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The creeping pace of the John Les investigation

This week marks a bleak anniversary for the justice system.
It was 18 months ago, on March 28, 2008, that an independent special prosecutor was appointed in an investigation into land deals in Chilliwack.
The special prosecutor was needed because a police investigation was looking at whether John Les - then the solicitor general - had "improperly benefited" from any deals that helped developers when he was Chilliwack mayor from 1987 to 1999.
Regular Crown prosecutors are public sector employees. If a case touches the government, a special prosecutor is appointed to provide the police with legal advice, decide if charges are warranted and then handle any resulting prosecutions.
Under the system, introduced by the Socred government in 1991, the deputy attorney general appoints a special prosecutor from a standing list prepared the ministry and the Law Society of B.C. (If you get nothing else from this column, you are now one of an small group who knows about special prosecutors.)
It's a good approach. In this case, it's not working.
Not for the public. Les ran in the May election while the charges were still being investigated. Voters had to decide whether to vote for, or against him, without any information about the investigation. (He was elected with 45 per cent of the vote.)
Now he's chairing the legislative finance committee touring the province to seek input for the February budget, while under investigation by a special prosecutor.
And the process certainly isn't working for Les.
He has spent 18 months under investigation, with a cloud hanging over his head. Les stepped down as solicitor general when the special prosecutor was appointed. That's a serious blow.
No matter how convinced you are of your innocence, that kind of wait has to be horrible. The uncertainty and concern would always be there, like a nagging toothache, flaring up in quiet moments.
It is simply unfair.
After the special prosecutor was appointed, the Agricultural Land Commission started a separate investigation into a 1997 land deal involving Les. The previous owner of a Chilliwack property had twice failed to win ALC approval to create a two-acre lot for a retirement home. He planned to sell the rest to his family.
The ALC said no; an additional home would take space needed to maintain a viable farm property.
In 1997, a company co-owned by Les - still the mayor - bought the property and subdivided it and two adjacent properties into six lots, without going to the ALC.
The process for those approvals is under ALC review.
The special prosecutor might be involved in entirely different matters.
But it's likely still a complex investigation. The events are at least a decade old. There are documents to review and interviews with people struggling to remember what they did a long time ago. New bits of information would send investigators back for repeat interviews with the people.
And care and diligence are needed. The special prosecutor must ultimately make an important decision about charges.
But the investigation began in June 2007. That's more than two years ago. The special prosecutor was appointed 18 months ago.
The process is taking too long. A review of the documents and interviews gathered by the police over almost a year might take two months. Another two months could be spent resolving questions raised by the evidence. And another two months could be used to review the law and tidy loose.
Then the special prosecutor decides. A jury might reasonably hear the evidence and consider a guilty verdict, or not. The case moves forward, or a weight is lifted from Les.
The delays could be a problem of resources or expertise. Perhaps there are not enough police officers or lawyers to keep the case on track.
If that is the problem, special prosecutor Robin McFee - a good choice, given the nature of the case - should say so.
The crawling pace toward answers doesn't serve the public interest and is terribly unfair to Les.
Footnote: Which leads to the B.C. Rail corruption trial. It has been almost seven years since the search of legislature offices; almost six years since three men were charged. The trial has not yet begun and a hearing on dismissing the charges because of the delay will be held in the first week of December.


Anonymous said...

According to the CBC, special prosecutor Robin McFee was actually appointed in June of 2007 so that would actually make it 27 months

So how much money has special prosecutor Robin McFee billed us taxpayers to date in those 27 months? Who does McFee answer too? How do we know that McFee is not just dragging the case out to add more billable hours? Not suggesting that this is the case but those are the questions that need to be answered. There needs to be accountability for all parties concerned.

Good work Paul. Let’s hope Robin McFee or whoever McFee answers to can provide us with some answers on this. Your article will hopefully do just that.

DPL said...

Les was on TV telling us how the action is at municipal level. He and DingDong, the other discredited SG were on some committee. Gordo sure can pick em

Anonymous said...

I heard that these special prosecutors make $1,750 per day. Guess who benefits the most the longer this drags on? Hmmm. INjustice.
I'd like to hear from Mr. McFee. At least something...

Norm Farrell said...

Compare Special Prosecutors, usually lawyers, to Trustees or Receiver/Managers, usually accountants. Like the first profession, the second allows participation in a mostly ignored system of file churning. Carried on by respectable professionals, with unsupervised court protection, these people play pass-the-lolly.

A hires B to consult on file X, B hires C to consult on file Y. Then C hires A to work on yet another job, file Z. The circle is complete. Everyone got some additional action, no directly reciprocal deals, therefore no conflicts of interest. Now, continue similar actions until the client being preserved no longer has value to harvest. Or, when the public purse is involved, when an implicit limit is reached that is well past reasonable but slightly short of criminally outrageous.

Anonymous said...

Some good comments here. Can an FOI be done to see how much this special prosecutor is billing us ? Does anyone know who he answers too ? Who signs off on his bills ? Can we audit his hours? Given that a Liberal Senator is being investigated for illegal billing I wonder who oversees this McFee character ?

Norm Farrell said...

Let us not single out this one lawyer. The situation is ordinary business and happens repeatedly and frequently in our style of political economics. Government hires big dollar meeting-holders but when these employees need something done outside ordinary routine, they bring on the consultants.

We have supposedly non-partisan legal experts in the AG's department but, given a complicated or sensitive case, they hire outsiders to handle the file. Municipal engineers don't do much engineering; they hire outside professionals for each project. Highly paid deputy ministers and senior managers don't reorganize departments or agencies, they hire management consultants to achieve any task beyond ordinary.

Had the provincial government slashed the budgets for external consultants instead of cutting education and other programs for children, money could be saved for the treasury without hurting the weakest. But, to BC Liberals, the needy are the least deserving. So, to a lawyer already earning $300 K, pay another $100 K. He's one of the entitled.

BC Liberals Suck said...

There is nothing non-partisan about the AG's office, about the Justice Branch, about the Deputy Minister of the AG, who it must be remembered is a BC Liberal appointee. Special prosecutors report to government, that is who appoints them and signs their cheques off for those monstrous billable hours.

This case is an example of dragging out an investigation, pure and simple and an example of extremely shoddy work. There is no earthly reason that this investigation should have dragged on so long. I guarantee you the optics of charging a sitting member of Cabinet would be a hard sell and don't forget, it's Crown Counsel, who are employees appointed by the BC government who would have to approve charges. If the public knew the kind of injustices that never even see the light of day because it wouldn't be "career enhancing" to proceed they would be angry and realize even more how unaccountable and corrupt this system is. There are few checks and balances left in BC and this story proves it, as does the Raid on the Legislature.

An interesting investigative piece would involve disclosing and reporting just how many special investigations have been done on BC government MLA's, senior bureaucrats and appointees over the last decade, how much that has cost taxpayers and how many cases actually proceeded. We, as taxpayers, are paying for this in many ways, financially is just one way. Or, how many lawsuits have been filed by BC government employees or citizens against government. How many billable hours have we been charged to keep these kind of cases out of the limelight.

Citizens in BC have lost faith in the justice system for good reason. It has become a tool of the ruling class to protect themselves and escape responsibility and accountability for actions that go against the public good. It has been made so expensive that citizens cannot afford justice for the wrongs committed by people of influence.
When a society has lost credibility of it's judges, courts and justice system, it has lost it's ability to be a civil society.

Kam Lee said...
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Anonymous said...

Special Prosecutors make a fraction of what they bill from private clients doing these cases. If Robin McFee wanted to bill for more hours, he certainly wouldn't do it on a case like this.