Questions linger 7 years after raid of B.C. legislature
Published Monday, December 27, 2010 10:33AM PST
Bobby Virk, centre, leaves B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver, B.C., on Monday October 18, 2010. (Darryl Dyck / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
It's an anniversary British Columbia's Liberal politicians would sooner forget.
On Dec. 28 2003, uniformed Mounties armed with a search warrant broke the post-Christmas time quiet at the ornate B.C. legislature. They scoured offices of senior politicians and seized 33 boxes of documents.
Government brass fended off accusations for the next seven years, getting raked over the coals during question period and pressing through two elections with the albatross of an ongoing criminal trial around their necks.
As suddenly as it had started, it was over.
In October, former ministerial aides Dave Basi and Bobby Virk made surprise guilty pleas. They were sentenced to house arrest for breach of trust.
The vault sprung open by the stunning legislature raid was all but slammed shut, leaving expectant British Columbians without a sense of closure.
"There will always be speculation, there will always be unanswered questions, there will always be a cloud," said Sean Holman, who runs a daily web-journal covering the backrooms of B.C. politics called Public Eye. "And that is unfortunate -- maybe it'll come out one day in the history books."
Basi and Virk were charged one year after police made their move, in connection with the B.C. Liberals' controversial $1-billion sale of Crown-owned BC Rail. Basi had worked for then-finance minister Gary Collins and Virk for then-transportation minister Judith Reid.
In the 2001 election only two years prior, the same government had promised not to privatize the regional railway.
Not far into the trial that only began in May, the former political appointees struck a deal and admitted to disclosing confidential cabinet documents for bribes. In an agreed statement of facts, the pair said they did not obtain the consent of their superiors.
Taxpayers were left footing the bloated court bill, and the Opposition called for a public inquiry that quickly faded with the HST-induced resignation of Premier Gordon Campbell and internal strife.
It will become clear in the coming months whether Liberal leadership candidates will be haunted by the BC Rail scandal. Since the trial's conclusion, court documents with testimony formerly under publication ban and other leaks have been slowly filtering out.
Liberal leadership contender Christy Clark has already rebuffed links to the scandal as smear tactics. The ex-deputy premier and her then-husband Mark Marissen, a federal Liberal Party strategist, were visited by RCMP at the time of the raid. They co-operated and were not under investigation.
Then-transportation minister, now premier-hopeful, Kevin Falcon, oversaw cancelling the second part of the privatization in 2004 because Mounties informed him the process was tainted.
And candidate Mike de Jong was dragged into the fray while B.C.'s attorney general. He signed off on absorbing $6 million in defence legal costs. His deputy attorney general has said de Jong had no knowledge of the deal until it was done.
"This is something that is always going to taint the Liberals, if the NDP decides to do so," said Mario Canseco, vice-president communications for Angus Reid Public Opinion.
"A lot of people were expecting the trial to happen and to be able to say 'Ok, (that is) who was giving the orders,"' he said, explaining the public perception was that the misconduct stretched far beyond two individuals.
"The fact that we never got to see that evidence in court ... if you already had those ideas in your mind that this Liberal party was corrupt, those ideas are not going to be easily forgotten."
More than 500 people have joined a Facebook page calling for a public inquiry into the case.
David Schreck, a political commentator who was NDP MLA in the 1990s, said the scandal could dog the Liberals for years to come.
"In terms of electability as premier into the next general election, it could have a devastating impact and would certainly become a campaign issue."
Yet Liberal candidates could emerge unscathed if the Opposition New Democrats stay preoccupied with their own internal squabbling, said Kennedy Stewart, an associate professor at the Simon Fraser University school of public policy.
But the unprecedented search and its fallout has nevertheless deepened public cynicism, he said.
"Things like BC Rail just fuel this appetite for saying 'We can't trust politicians' and 'We have to take policy-making into our own hands,"' said Stewart, noting as one example the anti-HST petition.
The most valuable product of the affair was that during the trial, the public got a brief glimpse of the inner workings of the provincial government, Holman said.
"There's some very, very powerful people who were caught up in this whole entire controversy, both inside and outside government, and it's an important case that people deserve answers to," he said. "But I don't think they're ever going to get them."