A conflict-of-interest probe into allegations against Premier Christy Clark will now be handled by an out-of-province lawyer, giving Independent MLA John van Dongen fresh hope that some of his questions about the long-running BC Rail case will be answered before the next provincial election.
Paul Fraser, the B.C. conflict of interest commissioner, announced Tuesday that he will hand off the complaint to his counterpart from the Northwest Territories to decide if a full-blown investigation is warranted.
Mr. van Dongen, a former B.C. Liberal who quit Ms. Clark's caucus, wants the Premier and others to be forced to testify under oath to determine if she violated conflict-of-interest regulations concerning cabinet meetings about BC Rail in 2003.
"This is not just about events that happened in 2003," Mr. van Dongen said in an interview. "This is about the performance of someone who is putting themselves forward for election."
Last week, Mr. van Dongen questioned Mr. Fraser's impartiality, saying there was a "reasonable apprehension of bias" because the conflict commissioner's son is connected to Ms. Clark's government.
In a statement Tuesday, Mr. Fraser maintained that his son's career did not inhibit his ability to handle the matter, but said the perception of bias could not be ignored. "I have concentrated on the underlying concerns that have been expressed. The work done by my office is important to the integrity of the legislative process, as well as to the maintenance of the ethical fibre of the Legislative Assembly," he wrote in the statement.
"The Legislative Assembly needs to be able to rely on me to take reasonable steps to weigh all the circumstances, and to ensure that any opinion offered to the Assembly – whatever that opinion turns out to be – is one in which legislators and the public can have confidence."
Mr. Fraser would not respond to telephone requests for an interview. In his statement, he said he is handing the complaint to Saskatchewan lawyer Gerald Gerrand, who serves as the conflict commissioner for the Northwest Territories and is a former conflict commissioner for Saskatchewan.
The BC Rail scandal preoccupied politics in British Columbia between 2003 and 2010, during an epic court case involving fraud and conflict-of-interest charges against former ministerial aides Dave Basi and Bob Virk. The trial ended suddenly in the fall of 2010 when both men entered guilty pleas after maintaining their innocence through years of pre-trial hearings.
Ms. Clark's brother, Bruce Clark, and her husband at the time, Mark Marissen, were both associated with Mr. Basi and Mr. Virk. Neither the Premier's brother nor her ex-husband were accused of any wrongdoing – nor was Ms. Clark, who was deputy premier at the time.
But Mr. van Dongen said Ms. Clark has not answered questions raised during her bid for the B.C. Liberal leadership nearly two years ago and it is important that voters hear those answers before heading to the polls in May.