Bill Vander Zalm, the former premier who led the fight against the harmonized sales tax in British Columbia, is caught up in another battle – this time over truth and another man’s reputation.
Mr. Vander Zalm is in B.C. Supreme Court, defending himself against defamation charges brought by Ted Hughes, the former conflict of interest commissioner who brought an end to Mr. Vander Zalm’s political career with a damming report in 1991.
Mr. Hughes, who is 84, took the stand as the first witness Monday in a case involving statements made by Mr. Vander Zalm in his autobiography, which he self-published in 2008.
In the book, Bill Vander Zalm: For The People, the controversial former leader of the Social Credit Party alleges that Mr. Hughes acted out of his own self -interest and with political bias when he produced a report that forced Mr. Vander Zalm to resign.
Mr. Hughes told court he was acting conflict of interest commissioner for B.C. in 1991 when Mr. Vander Zalm, then premier, called and asked him to investigate allegations that he had acted improperly when he and his wife, Lillian, sold their business, a theme park called Fantasy Gardens.
Mr. Hughes said he accepted the assignment in February of that year, and, urged on by Mr. Vander Zalm who wanted the issue resolved quickly, he tabled a report on April 2.
The report found that Mr. Vander Zalm was in a conflict of interest when he sold his business that previous summer for $16-million to Tan Yu, a billionaire from Taiwan.
The Hughes report found that Mr. Vander Zalm had mixed government duties with his own private interests by, among other things, having the then lieutenant governor, David Lam, host a luncheon for Mr. Yu at Government House.
The Hughes report also found Mr. Vander Zalm breached the guidelines when he accepted $20,000 in cash from Mr. Yu.
“I have no doubt reasonably informed persons could properly conclude the premier’s ability to exercise his duties and responsibilities objectively in the future might appear to be compromised given the bizarre circumstances in which the money was given to the premier and the lack of any reasonable explanation,” stated the report.
The day the report was released Mr. Vander Zalm resigned – ending his tumultuous five-year reign as premier.
He was never elected to office again, despite attempts to regain a seat in the legislature and a run at the Vancouver mayor’s seat. But he did recapture public attention in 2009 when emerged from political obscurity to head the campaign that brought an end to the HST in B.C. last summer.
In his book, excerpts of which were read out in court, Mr. Vander Zalm suggests Mr. Hughes was part of a plot to undermine him, and that he had produced a negative report to gain favour with the NDP, which in 1991 was poised to form the next government.
“If Hughes came back with a report saying there was nothing wrong … it would not be well received by the NDP,” said Irwin Nathanson, Mr. Hughes’s lawyer, in reading from the book.
Mr. Nathanson quoted Mr. Vander Zalm as writing that if Mr. Hughes’s report brought down the premier “the NDP would think he was a hero.”
Mr. Vander Zalm, he said, also wrote that Mike Harcourt, who was then NDP leader, “knew the set up all along.”
Mr. Nathanson said “there are many untrue statements” in Mr. Vander Zalm’s book, and promised to lay them out for the jury over the course of the 10-day trial.
Mr. Hughes, a former judge, deputy attorney general and head of numerous conflict of interest investigations for several provincial and territorial governments, alleges his reputation was damaged by Mr. Vander Zalm’s book.