A former government communications director in B.C. Premier Christy Clark's government has been charged under the Criminal Code with breach of trust over his alleged role in a partisan campaign to woo ethnic voters.
The charge against Brian Bonney was read in court Tuesday morning – the latest chapter in a long-running controversy with its roots in the Premier's office.
There has been just a single criminal charge approved after a three-year-long investigation by the RCMP and a special prosecutor, and the B.C. Liberals on Tuesday left Mr. Bonney to stand on his own, saying he must be held accountable for his actions. But with Mr. Bonney promising to mount a vigorous defence, the case could yet reveal more details about the blurred lines between public and partisan activities within the B.C. government.
The special prosecutor overseeing the case, lawyer David Butcher, did not elaborate on the specific allegations against Mr. Bonney, and the hearing on Tuesday morning was covered by a publication ban.
However, a 97-page report written in 2013 by the Premier's deputy minister, John Dyble, set out Mr. Bonney's role in the creation of an elaborate and wide-reaching "multicultural outreach strategy" on behalf of Ms. Clark's government.
Mr. Dyble found several government officials breached the public-service code of conduct and that government resources were misused for political purposes, leading Ms. Clark to dump two officials, including her deputy chief of staff, Kim Haakstad, and Mr. Bonney. As well, her party repaid $70,000 to government for the time Mr. Bonney spent conducting B.C. Liberal business while he was on the public payroll.
The outreach strategy involved both party and government officials who sought to shield their activities from public scrutiny by conducting work on private e-mails – a tactic designed to elude Freedom of Information requests and to hide inappropriate partisan activities, the Dyble report said.
Mr. Bonney brushed past reporters as he left the provincial courthouse in Vancouver, leaving his lawyer, Ian Donaldson, to state that his client would defend himself against the criminal charge. "You can expect a vigorous, thorough defence," Mr. Donaldson said.
He added: "No rational person is pleased to be in this position, but in the fullness of time, we hope that and expect that justice will be done. … Mr. Bonney was employed by the public and the public got what they paid for, and then some."
Later in the day, Mr. Butcher and defence counsel made a joint submission for a stay of proceedings on Elections Act charges Mr. Bonney and his business partner, Mark Robertson, faced in a different matter, this time related to their work on behalf of the Liberal Party in a provincial by-election. The agreement saw a numbered company plead guilty to one count under the Elections Act and agree to pay a $5,000 fine.
Mr. Butcher told the court the company had breached reporting rules. "It is also significant that the failure to report would appear to be part of a broader scheme to pursue electoral advantage without proper disclosure," he said.
The Dyble investigation was prompted by the Opposition NDP's release of a leaked draft ethnic voter plan, which showed officials were working on a scheme to improve the B.C. Liberals' appeal to ethnic communities through a series of government actions that were described as "quick wins," including apologizing for historical wrongs affecting certain ethnic groups.
The New Democrats hoped the ethics revealed in the document would damage the Liberal election chances, but Ms. Clark's campaign victory quelled the political debate for a time.
However, three months after the election, outgoing NDP Leader Adrian Dix brought a complaint to the RCMP about the case, leading to the appointment of Mr. Butcher as the special prosecutor. The New Democrats said they could not comment on the substance of their complaint to the RCMP three years ago.
On Tuesday, NDP Leader John Horgan took questions from the media, saying he is not disappointed that only a single criminal charge has been approved. "That trivializes breach-of-trust charges against a government official," Mr. Horgan said. "In most jurisdictions, that's a big deal."
The Premier was not available for comment. Her officials confirmed she was not interviewed by the RCMP.
Deputy Premier Rich Coleman told reporters in Victoria the charge is "disappointing" and said it raises a significant issue for political parties in general as both the NDP and the Liberals are preparing for the 2017 provincial election now with a clear warning against government staff conducting partisan activities.
However, Mr. Coleman sought to keep Mr. Bonney's actions at arm's length, suggesting his actions did not reflect badly on the government or the B.C. Liberals. "I think we acted prudently when this came up. It was referred to a special prosecutor, completely independent from us," he said. "People have to be held responsible for their own actions. It's not like someone directed someone to do something that was breaking the law."