“I do not consider its current level of accountability and transparency to be healthy or acceptable,” John van Dongen said as he announced his intention to become involved in a case related to political corruption.
Former Liberal backbencher John van Dongen is heading to court in three weeks to join efforts by B.C. Auditor-General John Doyle to prod the provincial government to answer the $6-million question – why did the Liberal government pick up the legal bill for Dave Basi and Bob Virk?
But the court may not be the right place for Mr. van Dongen to look for some clarity. On the contrary, the issues under review in the courtroom may do nothing more than raise additional questions in the political arena.
The Auditor-General has gone to court after he was unable to gain access to records required in order to review the legal bill and conduct a value-for-money audit. Five days have been set aside for the case, June 18. Mr. van Dongen, who now sits as a Conservative MLA in the legislature, has asked to be accepted as an intervenor. His application will be heard on June. 1. But Mr. van Dongen may be surprised to discover that the most vigorous opposition to the release of information in the courtroom will not come from the government.
The government says most of the information requested by the Auditor-General is with independent lawyers who reviewed the bills, not in their files. The government has given the AG all of its documents and intends to remain mostly silent on the key issues, documents submitted to court indicate.
A big stumbling block to access to information will be Mr. Basi and Mr. Virk, who have asserted that information provided to the independent lawyers is confidential, subject to solicitor-client privilege, and cannot be shared with the Auditor-General. As a result, the independent lawyers will not release the information without a court order.
Mr. Basi and Mr. Virk, highly placed ministerial aides, pleaded guilty to accepting benefits and breach of trust in October, 2010, for leaking confidential cabinet documents related to the $1-billion sale of BC Rail.
The government picked up their legal bills because the two men did not have assets to cover what they owed, said Mike de Jong, who was attorney-general when the bills were paid. However, government critics question how the government reached its decision to pay the bills.
The assertion of privilege by Mr. Basi and Mr. Virk will turn attention away from the government and focus the spotlight on documents held by the independent lawyers. Their lawyers were to provide detailed information on aspects of their defence and a breakdown of their preparation for the case. Once the independent lawyers certified that the expenses were appropriate, they sent the bill on to the government for payment. The government has a certificate validating the bill – and not much more.
A second front in the battle for access will be against Michael Frey, a lawyer representing the interests of several civil servants who had their legal bills paid by the government.
The government since 1999 has paid the legal bills in around 100 cases in which employees were not covered by a collective agreement or by a condition of employment. The Auditor-General has sought access to documents related to those cases. Mr. Frey has advised the court that he will oppose the Auditor-General's application for access.
Who can argue with Mr. van Dongen's efforts to push the government for more answers in the Basi-Virk case? But he is highly unlikely to affect government accountability and transparency by going to court.