Thursday, April 26, 2007

Early days of Basi-Virk trial bring tough questions for Liberals

The corruption trial of ministerial aides Dave Basi and Bobby Virk is only days old, and the bombshells are already shaking B.C. politics.
Basi and Virk are charged with taking bribes in connection with the sale of B.C. Rail. The evidence is expected to include testimony from Erik Bornman, a lobbyist, who will say he paid the bribes. Bornman hasn't been charged, one of the issues the defence lawyers are questioning. All this flows from the legislature raids more than three years ago.
Three years is a long time to wait for answers. Not just on the question of guilt or innocence, important as that is. But about what sparked the investigation, why policed raided a who's who of federal Liberal party wheels, how the government responded to the concerns, how the B.C. Rail deal was affected and just what happened.
So far, none of those questions have been answered. But defence lawyers, using wiretap material and other documents, have already raised a raft of damaging charges against the Campbell Liberals and the RCMP.
They're trying to make the case that the wiretap evidence was wrongly obtained and shouldn't be allowed. They're also suggesting that the RCMP failed to investigate the politicians properly and that Basi and Virk were simply doing their bosses' bidding. To establish that, the lawyers argue, they need access to a lot more government records.
Along the way the lawyers have been offering examples from the evidence to support their arguments. The examples seem chosen to make life difficult for Premier Gordon Campbell and the Liberals.
The lawyers said the evidence showed that Basi performed political dirty tricks for the government, with the knowledge and support of the premier's office.
Basi paid a man $100 to heckle fish farm protesters at a Victoria supermarket. He lined up callers when politicians were on radio talk shows, people who would use fake names and lob softball questions at the premier and other Liberals. He recruited callers to attack opponents - even long retired former premier Bill Vander Zalm.
All with knowledge of the senior people in the premier's office - including, according to one e-mail, Campbell.
It's no secret parties sometimes try and stack call-ins. But the notion of this being government strategy, managed at taxpayers' expense, is offensive.
And the idea that the Liberals might be paying people to disrupt legitimate demonstrations is just ugly. Secret agents of a political party shouldn't harass citizens trying to make a point.
The lawyers dropped more bombs. They said politicians had been wrongly excluded from the investigation. One of the lead RCMP officers on the case was the brother-in- law of the B.C. Liberal party president and didn't immediately disclose the conflict, the lawyers claimed.
These are all just allegations. But they raised some serious concerns about the way the Liberal party and the government operate.
And the New Democrats were quick to jump on the issue in question period. The questions have varied. But basically, the NDP has been asking about the allegations of dirty tricks. So have reporters.
Campbell isn't talking. He says he won't answer any questions about allegations or evidence at the trial until the case is resolved. He's taking the position out of respect for the courts, he says.
You can make the argument. There's no worry about influencing a jury; B.C. Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth Bennett is hearing the case. But the premier could say he doesn't want to risk even the appearance that he's trying to influence the court.
But there's a stronger case for some answers, too.
The New Democrats have managed to narrow the questions to remove references to the trial, asking Campbell simply to confirm that no one in his office is currently involved in such political tricks.
The questions are serious, raising the issue of the ethical standards - the sense of decency and respect - we expect from those in public life.
Footnote: The New Democrats also continued to raise questions about potential conflicts in the roles occupied by former top bureaucrat Ken Dobell, who is being paid both as an advisor to the premier and a lobbyist for the City of Vancouver attempting to get money from the province. Attorney General Wally Oppal has struggled in dealing with what look legitimate concerns.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Dobell conflict issue could hurt Liberals

The Liberals' problem in dealing with the great Ken Dobell controversy is that their explanations just won't strike most people as reasonable.
Dobell has been one of Premier Gordon Campbell's closest associates since the mid-80s, when he was the Vancouver city manager and Campbell was mayor.
Dobell was hired to do the same job, on a bigger scale, when the Liberals were elected in 2001. As deputy minister to the premier, Dobell ran the show for Campbell. He was one of the two key architects of the first term.
When Dobell stepped down in 2005, things got complicated. And sloppy. Campbell wanted to continue to rely on Dobell for advice. So the premier's office signed a contract that would see the government pay Dobell $250 an hour to a maximum of $230,000 a year. He was available for general advice or to work on special projects. Over the past two years he's chaired the Vancouver convention centre project - that hasn't worked out so well - and represented the province on the Olympic organizing committee. Campbell tapped him to work on the softwood lumber dispute, coastal forest problems, the Gateway transportation project, conflicts with teachers and as a lobbyist to push B.C.'s interests in Ottawa.
He even kept an office in he government's Vancouver headquarters.
No worries there, beyond the usual concerns when a manager is so dependent on one consultant.
But Dobell, in retirement, was still available for other work.
And the City of Vancouver thought he was just the man to take on a couple of projects. Vancouver hired him as a consultant to develop an affordable housing strategy and set up a "cultural precinct." The work included lobbying the provincial government.
Both projects were entirely dependent on getting big money from the province. And who better to do that than Dobell.
And who better to lobby Campbell than someone whose opinion he already valued so highly that the premier is paying $250 an hour for his advice.
I can't imagine how the government didn't see this as a problem. One meeting, Dobell is offering his guidance to the premier on some of the most important issues facing the province.
And then an hour later, Dobell is sitting in the same chair in the bright Vancouver premier's office, lobbying for a multi-million-dollar contribution to Vancouver's plan for an arts district.
Perhaps Campbell and Dobell could keep the roles straight.
But if you were a representative from another community trying to get money for a cultural precinct, would you think the playing field was level? Would you have the same chance to talk to the premier about the issue?
It's hard to know how much interest there would have been in the conflict issue alone.
But the whole affair took a new turn this week.
The NDP has established that while Dobell started work as a lobbyist for Vancouver in April 2006, he didn't sign up with the province's lobbyist registry until November. The act requires registration within 10 days.
The government has asked Information and Privacy Commissioner David Loukidelis to investigate. But the NDP looked at the act and concluded that there was a problem. Charges have to be filed within six months of the alleged offence. The deadline is this week.
The New Democrats said that if prosecutors won't lay charges, MLA Maurine Karagianis will. The deadline is Thursday.
It's a problem for the Liberals, one they could have easily avoided by being alert to the appearance of a conflict. Now they're looking defensive on an issue that plays into peoples' fears about how government works.
And at a bad time. While this is unfolding, the trial of former Liberal aides Dave Basi and Bobby Virk is hearing allegations of political dirty tricks by the Liberals, including paying a heckler $100 to disrupt an aquaculture protest in Victoria.
The Dobell issue isn't likely to go away.
Footnote: Dobell raised the risk of a perceived conflict of interest last fall in a letter to the Vancouver city manager and his replacement as Campbell's deputy minister, while rejecting the idea of an actual conflict. He had already discussed the issue with both managers, but he also wanted to agree in writing that he had raised the conflict issue and they had said it was not a problem.