The ethics scandal that has shaken the B.C. Liberal government involves far more than a draft document that went nowhere, as the Liberals initially suggested. An internal probe based on more than 10,000 documents found an elaborate and wide-reaching scheme with its roots in the Premier’s Office.
The 97-page report released on Thursday on a leaked multicultural outreach strategy concluded that several government officials breached the public service code of conduct and that government resources were misused for political purposes.
Premier Christy Clark announced on Thursday that her party has cut a $70,000 cheque to repay the treasury for public money wrongly spent on partisan activities. She has also dumped a cabinet minister and accepted the resignation of two staff members. More discipline is expected to be meted out by her chief of staff. “I will not hide from responsibility for this,” the Premier told reporters.
It is too early to measure the damage done to the Liberals’ election hopes, just two months before B.C. voters head to the polls. But the leaked ethnic-voter strategy that prompted the investigation will leave a stain on the public service. It exposes how a web was crafted that bound together officials from the Liberal Party, caucus and government.
Ms. Clark told reporters the “errors of a few” should not taint the broader public service. “This document isn’t easy reading for any of us in government.”
John Langford, a professor of public policy at the University of Victoria and co-author of The Responsible Public Servant, said the scandal does hurt the institution of government. “It has a corrosive effect, no question,” he said. He noted that most of the misconduct was attributed to political staff, not traditional civil servants, and demonstrates the need for clearer rules on how the two types of government employees should engage.
The report by the Premier’s deputy minister, John Dyble, says the multicultural outreach strategy began in a meeting called by the Premier’s then-deputy chief of staff, Kim Haakstad, on Dec. 1, 2011. In attendance were six government employees, four Liberal caucus staff and one official from party headquarters.
That meeting set the tone for the development of the plan, which blurred the lines between government and party work: “It was unclear to several of the participants whether this was a government meeting or a partisan meeting,” the Dyble report states.
Over the coming months, the draft plan was developed with the objective of improving the B.C. Liberals’ appeal to ethnic communities in time for the May, 2013, election – a quest for “quick wins.”
The report found that Ms. Haakstad was in serious breach of the public service code of conduct for her role in developing the strategy. She resigned shortly after the document was leaked.
Brian Bonney, who served as a senior political aide for 16 months in the Clark government, was also found in a serious breach. He spent as much as half of his time in government working on B.C. Liberal business, before he left on Feb. 21 of this year having collected a total of $124,000 on the public payroll.
As work on the strategy developed, government officials sought to shield their activities from public scrutiny by conducting work on private e-mails – a tactic to elude freedom of information requests and to hide inappropriate partisan activities, the report said.
In one telling example, Mike Lee, a political aide to John Yap, who was multiculturalism minister at the time, used his personal e-mail to update his boss on plans he and Mr. Bonney were developing for the government to hire community liaison contractors controlled from outside of government to do multicultural outreach.
“It is absolutely critical that we do not leave any evidence of us helping them through this application,” Mr. Lee wrote. Mr. Lee resigned on Thursday.
Mr. Yap, who has been dumped from cabinet, responded on his e-mail: “I appreciate your efforts … Great job. Let’s now hope for the best.”