Thursday, October 01, 2009

What's B.C. Lotteries got to hide?

The government touts B.C. Lotteries "self-exclusion program" as an example of its response to problem gambling. People can actually bar themselves from casinos or the corporations online gambling site.
Is it working?
The corporation has reviews. Sean Holman has been trying to get them through freedom of information requests. But B.C. Lotteries is fighting to keep the information secret.
More over at

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.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Forced shelter law an overwhelmingly bad idea

The government's bumbling plan to let police drag homeless people to shelters should alarm Liberal supporters.
It certainly alarmed anyone knowledgeable about B.C.'s homeless crisis.
Not because of civil liberties' concerns, though they are real. The bigger problem is that Housing Minister Rich Coleman's Assisting to Shelter Act would create a raft of new problems for everyone involved - and do little good.
And while focusing on a new and unenforceable law, the government would be ignoring measures that could make a real difference for the hardcore homeless.
Coleman says the law is a compassionate response to the death of a homeless woman on a cold night in Vancouver last winter. Police and social workers had unsuccessfully urged her to spend the night in a shelter. She died of burns after a candle set her possessions on fire. Critics suggest the law is intended to allow people to be swept off the street during the Olympics.
The issue isn't compassion. It's competence and the government's apparent lack of understanding of homelessness, despite years of talk.
Government working papers indicate the original goal was to draft a law that would allow police to forcibly remove people from the streets if they were at risk in extreme weather, taking them to a shelter or jail.
When the B.C. Civil Liberties Association released the leaked documents, Coleman said the plan had evolved. Police would be empowered to forcibly take people to shelters, but the homeless would then be allowed walk away if they wished. At least shelter staff could talk to them, he said.
Let's count the problems.
Police would be saddled with a difficult responsibility. They would have to decide whether a person was at risk. If officers did opt to drag someone to a shelter against his will, they would face a potential fight.
And if the person refused shelter, or the shelters were full, then what? Police couldn't leave someone whose life they had judged at risk without facing later criticism if something bad happened. Would they be expected to spend the shift driving around looking for a shelter with space, with an increasingly angry prisoner in the back seat.
Shelter staff - already overloaded - would have to spend time with angry people, who were there against their will. If they did talk a person inside, more problems would be likely,
And the homeless people would face the prospect of being taken into custody by police and dragged to a shelter they had no intention of entering.
If they refused, they could be miles from their home turf, where they knew how to survive a cold night, with no way of getting back If they had created a camp for the night, or had their possessions in a cart, those would likely be gone by the time they made their way back.
Which means, of course, that some would risk confrontations with police in order to stay put.
Coleman's approach leaves all those problems unresolved.
And it's based on the fallacy that people who choose to sleep in an alley or quiet corner are all incapable of making sound decisions.
There are rational reasons for not going into a shelter. Sleeping on a mat on the floor in a room with dozens of other sick, snoring, talking and often difficult people is not what most of us would choose except as a last resort. Some people fear thefts; others have enemies in shelters.
Few shelters have storage for carts and possessions, or allow dogs or couples. People would rather make do outdoors than give up a pet, or everything they have left in the world, for a night indoors.
The way to increase safety is to address those issues, as a handful of shelters already have.
If the goal is humanitarian, fund cart lock-up and shelters that allow couples to stay together. Don't send police out; hire more outreach teams, which have proven highly effective.
Coleman should know all that by now. And that's what is most worrying about his defence of an ineffective, even destructive, new law.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Gambling and a morally lost government

I've railed about the wild gambling spree launched by the Liberals, most recently here. What's most troubling is that Gordon Campbell has said expanded gambling is wrong. Kevin Krueger said it was immoral. People would die and the blood would be on government's hands, he warned.
And they did it anyway.
Michael Smyth reports on what a scam it is in a column today.
And Lindsay Kines reports in the Times Colonist that at the same time B.C. is about to become the first jurisdiction in North America to allow legal Internet casino gambling, the government has cut a program to reduce problem gambling and help addicts by one-third. The $4.6 million equals about 40 cents for every $100 the government makes from gambling.