Premier Christy Clark must investigate her jobs minister for passing on an internal government e-mail to a B.C. Liberal insider, the NDP opposition says.
Bruce Ralston, the NDP finance critic, said it appears Pat Bell was helping out a political insider and friend when he passed along correspondence regarding fraud allegations against a Chinese businessman who Liberal Party official Bill Belsley was representing.
"The optics of it certainly suggest Mr. Belsey was getting preferential treatment, and I think that stinks," Mr. Ralston said in an interview.
Ministry officials said Mr. Bell was not available for comment on Wednesday. In a statement, the minister said he sent the internal government communication to Mr. Belsey because he was seeking "additional perspective" on a media report in China accusing the businessman of fraudulent activity.
The e-mail chain from November, 2011, contained discussions among provincial bureaucrats that included the fact that there would soon be a "cross-Ministerial meeting" to discuss a "settlement framework" with Ni Ritao and his company Sun Wave Forest Products, the former owner of the Skeena Cellulose Pulp Mill on Watson Island near Prince Rupert.
Mr. Belsey, a former MLA and the current vice-president of the B.C. Liberal Party, works for Sun Wave.
The statement said that it was "well known in the community" that the province was helping Prince Rupert settle a dispute with Mr. Ni and Sun Wave. The statement did not address whether it was widely known that provincial officials would be meeting to discuss the possible structure of a settlement with Mr. Ni.
Mr. Ralston said he is not convinced the e-mail is innocuous, as Mr. Bell has claimed, because some details in the e-mail chain, which was obtained by The Globe and Mail, were blanked out as information containing "policy advice, recommendations or draft regulations" and "disclosure harmful to personal privacy."
"If it wasn't related to government policy, why was the government e-mail blanked out? I don't accept that explanation from him. It's difficult to see how this is any different from the situation that gave rise to Harry Bloy being forced to resign from cabinet – the Premier described that as very bad judgment on Mr. Bloy's part. It seems to be indistinguishable."
Mr. Bloy resigned from cabinet in March after admitting that he had forwarded a government e-mail to a private company. Ms. Clark said at the time that Mr. Bloy's decision to forward the e-mail was "the wrong thing to do."
The long-troubled Skeena mill has been a significant issue for the provincial government and the jobs minister Mr. Bell. Once the largest employer in Prince Rupert, it was shut down in 2001, eliminating hundreds of jobs.
Mr. Ni, a businessman from the Chinese province of Zhejiang, bought the mill and its equipment out of receivership in 2005 for about $9-million. Sun Wave had vowed to restart the mill and create hundreds of jobs. That never happened. The city of Prince Rupert took back most of the land on Watson Island controlled by Sun Wave in 2010 for unpaid taxes. Mr. Ni and Sun Wave have sued the city, alleging the tax sale was improper. The litigation has prevented the city from selling the land.
In addition to the information about the upcoming government meeting, the e-mail forward to Mr. Belsey by Mr. Bell summarized fraud allegations against Mr. Ni that had been published in a Chinese magazine.
The article, published by Caiing, which a B.C. government bureaucrat described in the e-mail as a "financial magazine famous for its investigative reporting," alleged Mr. Ni used forged documents to inflate the value of the Skeena Mill as part of an attempted bank fraud.
Representatives of Mr. Ni, including Mr. Belsey, have said the allegations are untrue.