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Former B.C. cabinet minister joins fight for Basi-Virk documents

Former B.C. Liberal cabinet minister John van Dongen in his office at the B.C. Legislative Building in Victoria,BC Tuesday March 27, 2012.

Chad Hipolito for The Globe and Mail/chad hipolito The Globe and Mail

Former Liberal cabinet minister John van Dongen is attempting to join the provincial Auditor-General in a legal battle to force the B.C. government to release records concerning a political corruption case.

Mr. van Dongen, who in March crossed the floor to sit as a Conservative, states in an affidavit filed in court Monday that he struggled while a government member to get answers, but was repeatedly stonewalled by "a closed culture" within the Attorney-General's ministry.

"I do not consider its current level of accountability and transparency to be healthy or acceptable," states Mr. van Dongen.

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Recently, he has been asking questions in the legislature about a decision, made while he was still in government, to pay $6-million in legal fees for Dave Basi and Bob Virk. Mr. Basi and Mr. Virk were convicted of breach of trust for leaking confidential cabinet documents related to the sale of BC Rail.

Mr. van Dongen said he is resorting to the Supreme Court of British Columbia because all other attempts to get answers have failed.

Basically, he wants to know who made the decision to pay the legal fees of Mr. Basi and Mr. Virk and how that decision was arrived at.

In a notice of application filed along with the supporting affidavit, Mr. van Dongen seeks intervenor status in a proceeding that is going to trial next month, in which the Auditor-General's office is seeking access to "all documents" relating to the decision to pay the legal fees of Mr. Basi and Mr. Virk.

The two former ministerial assistants pleaded guilty to the breach-of-trust charges in a surprise deal in the fall of 2010, bringing a long-awaited trial to an abrupt end only days after it had begun.

Typically, government employees don't have their legal fees paid by the government unless they are found not guilty. But the government granted a special indemnity to the two men, waiving the not-guilty requirement, shortly before they entered guilty pleas.

The application filed by lawyer Roger McConchie states that Mr. van Dongen will be supporting the Auditor-General's case, but will provide unique "insight and analysis" on the issue.

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"I have a special perspective and can make a substantive contribution to the evidence," states Mr. van Dongen in his affidavit. "I have information concerning the public response to the legal fees indemnity waiver regarding Basi and Virk and the government's refusal to hold a public inquiry or otherwise provide a forum for the disclosure of reliable and complete information."

The application states Mr. van Dongen has been trying to get at the facts for years.

"When he learned of the government waiver, the applicant (who was then the Government Caucus Whip) immediately sought answers from the government and took steps that resulted in Premier [Gordon]Campbell's short-lived agreement to have the Deputy Attorney General and the Deputy Minister of Finance provide a full briefing to, and answer questions from members of the government caucus," the application states. "After the briefing was twice cancelled, the applicant embarked on a mission, which continues to this date, to exercise scrutiny and demand accountability of the executive for the waiver transaction."

Justice Minister Shirley Bond told reporters in Victoria she has delegated any decision-making authority related to Mr. van Dongen's application to her deputy minister.

"I will not be involved in any decision-making or discussion around the intervenor status application," she said. She then refused to comment on the application.

She reiterated that the deputy ministers of finance and attorney-general acted alone in making the decision to indemnify Mr. Basi and Mr. Virk.

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She said the authority for that decision was explained a year ago by then-Attorney-General Barry Penner in the legislature during a lengthy exchange with the NDP justice critic.

Finance Minister Kevin Falcon echoed that he never heard, as a member of cabinet, any of the details of the deal in advance. He would not say if it was appropriate to leave the decision to civil servants, but did say he wasn't happy with the deal when he learned of it.

"Not once ever did that discussion ever come to our level [at the cabinet table]" he said. "My reaction when I heard the news … was the same reaction that the public had. I was not at all happy about that decision."

The Auditor-General is going to court in June, in an attempt to pry from the government documents that were initially withheld because of claims of solicitor-client privilege made by the Attorney-General's office.

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