UBC president Stephen Toope didn’t come up with answers about how taxpayers ended up paying $6 million to cover the legal fees of two Liberal staffers who admitted taking bribes.
That wasn’t Toope’s asssignment, he said when he delivered a report on when taxpayers should and shouldn’t pay the legal bills for government employees. The government asked him to make recommendations about the policy in the future, not report on how it worked in the past.
Toope’s report was useful. But it didn’t dispel the smell hanging over the B.C. Rail scandal and the $6 million payout that helped ensure guilty pleas from Dave Basi and Bob Virk, shutting down the B.C. Rail corruption trial well before all the evidence was heard.
The government chose to release Toope’s report while he was in India, part of Christy Clark’s Asian tour. The University of B.C. has good reasons to be building ties with China and India. But the approach did emphasize the close ties between Toope and the government, and Clark’s unavailability to deal with questions.
Toope recommended the government keep on picking up the legal fees for government workers facing job-related lawsuits or criminal charges.
Partly, it’s a matter of fairness. If people are doing their jobs, and someone sues them or files criminal charges, they shouldn’t face crushing legal bills.
It’s also practical. If an enforcement officer fears facing a huge legal bill as a result of being sued for denying a development permit, he might just say yes to a bad project. Legal indemnification supports independent decisions in the public interest.
Toope recommended a clearer written policy, and better ways of managing costs in big ticket criminal cases. The government has effectively written a blank cheque to defence lawyers and special prosecutors. Toope said those costs could be reduced, at least on the defence side.
And he said the government should seek to recover costs if people are found guilty — something it chose not to do in the Basi-Virk case.
Toope also found there has been no real policy about covering costs in criminal cases. Public sector managers tried to push for a written policy, but the politicians never got around to making any decisions.
But the understanding, from the first case — when the government paid former Glen Clark’s legal fees in the casino licensing case — was clear. If the defendants were found not guilty, the taxpayers paid. If they broke the law, they had to pay for their own defence.
Until Basi-Virk. The government had claims on the defendants’ assets and could have collected a significant chunk of cash. But government, prosecutor and defence cut a deal. The two men pleaded guilty, and got an easy sentence of house arrest. The government — you — covered $6 million in legal fees.
The NDP raised the issue in question period this week. Attorney General Shirley Bond read from a statement in October 20101, when David Loukidelis, deputy in the Attorney General’s Ministry, and Graham Whitmarsh, finance deputy, said they made the decision because the Basi and Virk had limited ability to pay. The $6 million ensured a guilty plea; the alternative was to let the trial continue at a potentially greater cost, with no assurance of a conviction.
But it remains unclear how the two deputy ministers decided Basi and Virk couldn’t pay (the government already had $350,000 in security from Basi it could have claimed), how they had estimated trial costs and whether considered that the $6 million looked much an incentive to plead guilty, creating a perception damaging to government and the justice system.
Auditor General John Doyle is also looking at the $6 million payout.
Hopefully, he’ll come up with some better answers for the public.
In the meantime, the B.C. Rail scandal continues to hang over the government.
Footnote: The legal fee issue isn’t the only remaining question. It’s still unclear, for example, why lobbyists Brian Kieran and Erik Bornman, who both admitted paying bribes to Basi and Virk to get inside information on the deal, weren’t charged. It’s also unclear whether that was normal practice for them, or Basi and Virk. They also admitted leaking information to lobbyist Bruce Clark (Christy Clark’s brother), but it has never been explained why they did.