Friday, October 22, 2010

Changing story on B.C. Rail plea deal

The government now says David Loukidelis, deputy in the Attorney General's Ministry, and Graham Whitmarsh, finance deputy made the decision to cover David Basi and Bob Virk's legal bills:

From Thursday's Vancouver Sun:

"Loukidelis said in the statement that he and deputy finance minister Graham Whitmarsh decided to relieve the two men of responsibility for their legal fees because of their inability to pay...

Loukidelis said the special prosecutor in the case and Attorney-General Mike de Jong did not have "any knowledge of the matter or any involvement in this." He added that he informed de Jong of the decision after it was made, on Oct. 8."

But on Wednesday in the Sun de Jong appears to be saying he made the decision.

"De Jong said he made the recommendation last week not to recoup outstanding legal costs.

"As attorney-general, I am presented with a set of facts and a set of recommendations and in this case have proceeded on the strength of that and people will have to come to their own conclusions," he said.

De Jong also pointed out the plea bargain means that no more public money needs to be spent in the case."

And that's certainly what he seemed to say in Tuesday's Sun story:

"Attorney-General Mike de Jong said earlier that Basi and Virk will not be asked to repay the estimated $6 million the government has paid to cover their legal costs.

De Jong said he agreed to the deal because the two men had contributed what they could to their defence and "there's nothing left to pursue."

It might be that de Jong was misquited or just careless. But given the seriousness of the case and the size of the payout, why wouldn't he say on Tuesday that the two deputy ministers had made the decision and he had no role, if that was the case?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Things get worse in the B.C. Rail scandal

The Times Colonist reports that defence lawyers for Dave Basi and Bob Virk negotiated the forgiveness of $6 million in legal fees with deputy attorney general David Loukidelis and deputy finance minister Graham Whitmarsh.
That raises the perception the plea bargain had less to do with justice and more to do with closed door talks about money.
Most alarming though, is this sentence.

"But when special prosecutor Bill Berardino made the B.C. government aware on Oct. 5 that he had proposed to let the two men plead guilty, it fell to the deputy minister of finance, Graham Whitmarsh, and Loukidelis to figure out whether they would actually have to come up with the money, Loukidelis's statement read."

Why would the special prosecutor "make the government aware" of his plea offer? Special prosecutors are appointed in sensitive cases to ensure independence and avoid even the appearance that political influence was affecting the courts.
But if the special prosecutor is briefing the government of his plans, he is no longer independent. Telling the government of plans to seek a plea bargain, for example, invites interference. Either by proposing a different strategy or, as in this case, offering financial inducements to encourage a guilty plea.
This seems an extraordinary interference in what is supposed to be an independent justice system.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Trial ends, B.C. Rail scandal smell lingers on

The B.C. Rail scandal has cost taxpayers some thing above $15 million.
And without more answers, that looks like a very poor bargain.
The trial ended with a whimper Monday.
Dave Basi and Bob Virk, former Liberal political aides, pleaded guilty to accepting benefits in return for leaking confidential information about the B.C. Rail sale to lobbyists for one of the bidders, Omnitrax.
Virk, the ministerial assistant to former transport minister Judith Reid, took a trip to Denver to an NFL game worth about $1,500.
Basi, aide to former finance minister Gary Collins, went on the trip and received another $25,695.
They also admitted leaking information to Bruce Clark, a federal Liberal fundraiser and a lobbyist (and brother of former deputy premier Christy Clark).
In a plea bargain, they were sentenced to two years of relaxed house arrest and Basi will have to pay a fine equal to the benefits they received.
Case closed, says Premier Gordon Campbell. Two rogue political staffers caught. Justice done. No questions to answer.
That's not true though.
For starters, people are wondering why Basi and Virk decided to cut a plea bargain after years of protesting their innocence.
Or, for that matter, why the special prosecutor Bill Berardino accepted sentences that look much like slaps on the wrist for a serious violation of the public trust.
For Basi and Virk, there are about six million reasons to take the fall.
That's the incredible amount - $6 million - spent so far on their legal defence.
Standard procedure calls for the government to pick up the tab for employees' legal bills - unless they're ultimately found guilty, in which case they have to pay their own legal costs.
But the plea bargain included an agreement that government - that is, you - will cover their costs. They also got out of what looked increasingly like an endless legal process.
Berardino says he accepted the plea bargain because the trial would have dragged on for months and the duo acknowledged their guilt. The decision - made just before Collins was to testify - was his alone.
But that's not really true either. The special prosecutor can't agree to cover legal fees; that decision has to be made by the government.
And that raises at least the perception that the Liberals were interested in heading off more evidence in this trial.
I would have liked to hear from Collins. The statement of facts agreed on by both sides says Basi arranged a dinner at an Italian restaurant with two representatives of Omnitrax, the unsuccessful bidder the lobbyists were working for, and Collins and told them he would offer a "consolation prize." Collins never made such an offer, the statement adds. (Police had the meeting under surveillance.)
But it would be useful to hear him explain whether there was any reason for Basi to believe that was true.
I'd like to hear from Erik Bornman and Brian Kieran, the lobbyists who bribed Basi and Virk, on whether this was standard business practice and how they managed to avoid charges.
I'd like to hear from Clark about why he got inside information from the two men.
I would very much like to hear From Basi and Virk about what they were doing and why they were doing it.
And I would like to hear how the justice system has become so broken that a case can take seven years and bills for prosecution and defence lawyers can top $10 million.
The B.C. Rail deal smells. The Liberals promised not to sell the railway in 2001 and then turned around and did just that. (No reasonable person would believe that a 990-year lease isn't a sale.)
CP Rail, one of the bidders, pulled out, alleging the bid process was unfairly rigged to make sure CN ended up owning the railway.
And Omnitrax was being fed inside information.
Campbell says British Columbians shouldn't worry about any of this, or about the fact that senior political aides have been convicted on criminal charges.
But a lot of people are likely to find all this very troubling unless an inquiry of some kind is eventually called.
Footnote: Basi also pleaded guilty to accepting $50,000 to help get land out of the agricultural land reserve in the capital region. The land was released and developed. The government says Basi's efforts made no difference.