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Clark Liberals still tightlipped on $6-million payout

Aneal Basi (L), Dave Basi (centre left), his Lawyer Michael Bolton (centre right) and Bob Virk (R) leave BC Supreme Court October 18, 2010.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

It may be some time before Auditor-General John Doyle's review of the provincial government's decision to forgive $6-million in legal fees for the two B.C. Liberal political aides who pleaded guilty in the BC Rail case ever sees the light of day.

Eighteen months since he began his probe, Mr. Doyle is once again heading back to court in an effort to obtain documentation related to the payout.

It has been a slog the entire way for the Auditor-General. The government has routinely resisted his efforts to get access to information he feels is pertinent and essential to his investigation. It's enough to make a cynical person wonder if the government is hoping to stall this matter until after next May's provincial election.

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John van Dongen, the former Liberal MLA who recently bolted to the B.C. Conservative Party, has questions about the payout as well.

Mr. van Dongen has made it a mission to get to the bottom of the contentious deal, which was key to obtaining the guilty pleas that prematurely ended the trial. Had it continued, it was almost certain to draw back the curtains on backroom deal-making and be deeply embarrassing to the governing Liberals. There were several high-profile politicians expected to take the stand, including Premier Christy Clark.

Normally raucous Question Period was silenced this week when Mr. van Dongen got up to ask a question of Attorney-General Shirley Bond. And a terrific question it was.

The government has claimed that the decision to waive the legal fees of Bob Virk and Dave Basi was made by deputy finance minister Graham Whitmarsh and deputy attorney-general David Loukidelis, who announced on Friday he is leaving his position in June for personal reasons. In other words, by two bureaucrats who were independent of any influence by elected government officials.

But did Mr. Loukidelis and Mr. Whitmarsh have the power to make that decision?

A statement sent out by Mr. Loukidelis on Oct. 20, 2010 – shortly after the deal became public – said the deputy minister of finance had authority under the Financial Administration Act to release the two guilty government officials of their $6-million obligations to the government.

But in the legislature, Mr. van Dongen wanted to know why, if this was true, did the act say something quite different. In fact, it states specifically: "A debt or obligation to the government may not be forgiven without the approval of the Lieutenant Governor in Council [cabinet]if the amount forgiven is $100,000 or more."

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It lists the deputy minister of finance as being among those with the authority to forgive a government debt, but again states that this only applies if "the settlement agreement is not more than $100,000."

During Question Period, Ms. Bond – who was not in her position when the payout deal was struck – refused to answer Mr. van Dongen's questions. She said the Auditor-General was investigating the matter and that he should wait for his report.

That can't be good enough. Mr. van Dongen asked a completely valid and straightforward question about an issue that continues to rankle British Columbians. To fob it off so dismissively, and to great cheers and encouragement by her Liberal colleagues, I might add, is quite shameful. It certainly demonstrates why this government is in so much trouble with the public.

"What I'm trying to achieve is some transparency and accountability around a transaction that has upset a lot of British Columbians," said Mr. van Dongen, who cited the payout deal as one of the reasons he left the Liberal caucus.

"I think the public deserves some kind of explanation, because to this point they really haven't received one that makes any sense. For starters, I just want to know where certain people got the statutory authority to make that call. Because if they didn't have it, that's an incredibly serious matter."

He's right. Legal authorities are in place for a reason. The government can't willfully ignore them when it suits its purpose. Ms. Bond should have at least promised to get back to the legislature – to the representatives of the people – with some type of answer.

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Clearly, the government isn't ready to provide the transparency and accountability that Mr. van Dongen and others are demanding. That means the public may well have to wait for the Auditor-General to provide answers the government should be giving it.

It all makes you wonder: What is there to hide?

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