Auditor fights secrecy on Basil-Virk payment

Add another question to the mess that is the B.C. Rail scandal.

Add another question to the mess that is the B.C. Rail scandal.

Why did the provincial government, in handing over $6 million to pay Dave Basi and Bob Virk’s legal fees, agree to – or ask for – a secrecy clause so sweeping that it’s impossible for the province’s auditor general to do his job?

Auditor general John Doyle has been forced to go to B.C. Supreme Court in a bid to get the government to hand over documents about the deal.

Doyle says he needs the information to fulfill his obligations to ensure money was spent legally and properly reported. He’s seeking “the approvals, expenditures, records and documents supporting the expenditures” made to cover “the provision of public funds to Basi and Virk,” according to the petition to the court.

The government has refused to provide the information. It signed a confidentiality agreement with Basi and Virk, so everything has to stay secret, it says. The auditor general and the public can’t know anything about how the decision to spend the $6 million was made.

The legal funding violated government policy. Politicians and government employees are promised funding for lawyers if they end up in work-related legal proceedings. But if they are found guilty of wrongdoing, the legal bills become their responsibility. The government had even registered a mortgage on Basi’s home to ensure it could collect at least some of the money.

Basi and Virk admitted guilt in a plea bargain after the government promised it would cover their legal fees. But the government paid the $6 million anyway.

And, it turns out, struck a deal that ensured the details would be kept secret.

Why? The government was handing over $6 million. It had every right to say no to secrecy, but didn’t.

The perception is, inevitably, that there was something to hide.

Doyle wants to know details of the payment to cover legal fees for Basi and Virk. The public should too.

The $6 million promise, remember, came after the trial had begun. It was a powerful incentive for Basi and Virk to plead guilty to corruption charges. If they didn’t, and were found guilty, they risked losing everything – homes, any savings. The smart move was to accept the plea deal, with the multimillion-dollar sweetener.

And the plea bargain ended the trial, which had already proved embarrassing for the Liberal government. Doyle’s review would be welcome.

Premier Christy Clark maintains there is no need to seek further answers in the B.C. Rail scandal.

But many questions remain.

Basi and Virk admitted taking bribes from Erik Bornman, a lobbyist and political foot soldier, and Brian Kieran, a lobbyist and former journalist. The men were lobbyists for one of the bidders for B.C. Rail.

But they were never charged.

In statements to obtain search warrants – not tested in court – police swore Bornman told them he started paying bribes to Basi even before the Liberals were elected in 2001. The money was to pay “his political support, his support in referring clients to my business and for assistance on client matters,” Bornman told police.

That suggests other well-connected people were paying for preferential “assistance” in other areas. The government seems uninterested in establishing the facts.

A police search found that Bruce Clark, a federal Liberal activist, lobbyist and Christy Clark’s brother, had B.C. Rail sale documents “improperly disclosed” by Basi and Virk. Clark was working for the Washington Marine Group, which was interested in buying the B.C. Rail line to the Roberts Bank superport.

But it’s never been explained why Basi and Virk shared the material or what Clark did with it. (Christy Clark is now lobbying the federal government to help the same company win a shipbuilding contract.)

The government has consistently ignored important questions raised by the B.C. Rail scandal. The auditor general is standing up for the public interest.

Footnote: Attorney General Barry Penner says it’s up to Basi and Virk to decide whether to share the information. But he has refused to order a review of the $6 million deal – including the secrecy clause. The government is reviewing its policies on paying for lawyers.