Saturday, December 18, 2010

Starting your pre-Christmas Saturday

I suggest preparing for the day with a little music here. And then buying more music by the Mountain Goats. The writing is as good as you'll find in music today.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Why the BC Rail scandal shouldn't be forgotten

The B.C. Rail scandal is back in the news, a good thing. New information from search warrants has been released thanks to a media application.
If British Columbians decide just to forget about this scandal, we’ll have given up something as a society.
The issues are huge — corruption tainting the sale of a public railway, broken promises, bribery to exert influence in two cabinet ministers’ offices and a $6-million benefit to two offenders, at taxpayers’ expense, that encouraged guilty pleas and stopped the trial.
This is like stuff from some sleazy Florida municipal government.
The new search warrant information is grim.
It hasn’t been proved in court, but police swore that Erik Bornman, a lobbyist and political foot soldier, told them he started paying bribes to Dave Basi even before the Liberals were elected in 2001 — long before the B.C. Rail bribes.
The money was to pay for “his political support, his support in referring clients to my business and for assistance on client matters,” Bornman said.
After the election, Gary Collins became finance minister, and Basi was named his political aide. Bornman was with Pilothouse Public Affairs, a lobbying firm. Both Bornman and Basi were political operatives, working in federal and provincial Liberal campaigns, particularly active in the federal ones.
Bornman says he paid Basi, and in return Basi steered lobbying clients his way. He also got special treatment for the people who paid Pilothouse to influence government and “political support.”
There is a serious stench about this. Companies or individuals have a concern about government policy. They raise it and are told it might be wise to hire a specific lobbyist. The lobby firm pays a bribe to help get the problem solved.
And all involved co-operate to ensure the re-election of the party in power.
Too many questions remain unanswered.
Why wasn’t Bornman charged with bribery or tax fraud, since he told police he paid less in taxes because he made the bribes look like a legitimate business expense?
Who decided the people who took the bribes were a more important target than those who paid them?
And how much effort was spent ensuring these practices weren’t more common?
The search warrants include the claim Basi had bank deposits that showed unexplained income of $870,000 between 2000 and 2004. Defence lawyers say the Crown’s expert showed the real unexplained amount was $112,000.
But that’s much more than bribes paid by Bornman and capital region developers paying for Basi’s influence getting land out of the agricultural land reserve. Who else paid and benefited?
The warrants also reveal that Brian Kieran, a principal in Pilothouse, paid Basi $3,000 in cash. Basi and Bob Virk, political aide to then transport minister Judith Reid, took a free trip to an NFL game in Denver, thanks to Omnitrax, a bidder for B.C Rail. They paid for their airplane tickets to make it look legit, the warrants say, and Kieran came through with cash so no one would know about the freebie. He billed the client.
It’s all sordid and corrupt. At least some people paid money and got special treatment and favours from government. It mattered who you could pay and who you knew.
The important question is whether these are aberrations, or symptoms of an unhealthy relationship between people who float back and forth between lobbying, campaigns and political jobs in government.
And British Columbians really can’t know, based on the information that is currently available.
They know, for example, that a police search found Bruce Clark, a federal Liberal activist, lobbyist and Christy Clark’s brother, had B.C. Rail sale documents “improperly disclosed” by Basi and Virk. Clark was working for the Washington Marine Group, which was interested in buying the B.C. Rail line to the Roberts Bank superport.
But how did he get the information, and what did he do with it? Those facts have never been revealed.
The Liberals would like people to forget about the scandal. To do that, without more answers, would be to say that British Columbians are comfortable with the threat of a government corruption.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Why Frank Paul died and everything after

I've been writing about Frank Paul since 2002. It was 12 years ago this month that he died in alley where Vancouver police dumped him. He had been picked up for being drunk and dragged into Vancouver cells. But a police officer said he was OK, so he was dragged out and left in an the alley in the cold. (You can read a primer on the sorry case here.)
The police investigation was sloppy and self-serving. Prosecutors did a shoddy job of reviewing the file. The police complaints commissioner and provincial politicians stonewalled calls for an inquiry for nine years.
The inquiry is concluding. Stephen Kelliher, lawyer for the Paul family, offered a clear explanation for how this all happened Tuesday, and it's reported here. It is important to read.

Welfare rates, rules keep people down

Take the time to look into welfare rates and policies and you might wonder why the government dislikes some citizens so much.
The National Council on Welfare released a report this week noting how destructive welfare rates and eligibility polices are across Canada.
A young Victoria woman put the reality simply years ago. She said it seemed the government wanted to provide enough income that she and her son could survive. But not enough that they could escape from the welfare trap. (That was, I note, under the NDP government.)
Premier Gordon Campbell said much the same thing last year. He made an unsuccessful pitch for federal money to increase welfare payments during the recession.
"Income assistance is clearly the last social safety net into which any worker wants to fall," he wrote in an op-ed piece in The Globe and Mail. "Not only are the monthly benefits often less than those payable under EI, but those who are forced to go on welfare risk entering a cycle of dependency that is tough on families, communities and our economy."
In other words, they get trapped.
There's a perverse moral judgment involved. People should just try harder, the unspoken - or sometimes spoken - argument goes. If they can't get a job, they're flawed and don't deserve a decent life.
Of course, 58 per cent of the 132,000 people in income assistance in B.C. have disabilities that keep them from working. Another 8,000 have "multiple persistent barriers to employment."
And then are the kids dependent on income assistance and the people who have lost jobs, run out of employment insurance, used their savings and themselves on welfare, a little unsure how this happened.
And trapped.
If you're single parent with two children and the government has deemed you employable, income assistance provides up to $660 for rent (about half the cost of a two-bedroom place in Victoria).
Between welfare and the family bonus, there's another $623 a month to cover everything else for a family of three - food, clothes, bus passes, a phone, maybe cable, school fees. That's about $20 a day to cover all those things.
All in, the family is supposed to live on less than $300 a week - less than minimum wage. (A single person gets up to $375 for rent and less than $8 a day to live on. Try launching a job hunt while living on $8 a day.)
People get by. But their lives are crappy. And children raised in this kind of poverty face a lifetime of health, educational and work problems.
It's not just a question of income assistance rates, although they have only been increased once since 1994.
The rules grind people into perpetual poverty. In B.C., for example, people on disability assistance or with persistent barriers to employment can earn up to $500 a month without penalty.
But for 48,000 people on income assistance, the government claws back any part-time employment income. Hustle up some work cutting lawns and make $40, and it's deducted from your welfare cheque.
It's a cruel disincentive for people trying to get back into the workforce.
In Alberta, recipients get to keep the first $230 they can earn and one-quarter of any earnings above that. The government says people are "encouraged and supported to work" while on welfare. "Employment can increase their total income and provide valuable work experience."
The National Council on Welfare noted the requirement that applicants exhaust their savings before being eligible was also destructive.
Don Drummond, former chief economist of the TD Bank, supported that observation. "Those in need must essentially first become destitute before they qualify for temporary assistance," he said. "But the record shows once you become destitute you tend to stay in that state. You can't afford to move to where jobs might be or upgrade your skills."
The current policies are cruel and ineffectual. Leadership candidates, for both parties, should be asked what they would do differently.
Footnote: The council report found B.C. support for two-parent families with two children was the third lowest in the country, exceeding only New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Benefits are, in constant dollars, well below 1990 levels.