VICTORIA - As John van Dongen tells it, he’s been after the full story since first hearing that the government had waived repayment of $6 million in legal fees for the two corrupt ex-B.C. Liberal political aides in the BC Rail case.
“I did not understand how the unprecedented legal fee indemnity waiver could be justified on legal or ethical grounds,” said the Liberal-turned-Conservative in a legal affidavit filed Monday.
But despite repeated attempts, the Abbotsford South MLA was unable to penetrate the stonewall erected by what was, at the time he made those efforts, his own government.
The full story is laid out in van Dongen’s 38-page affidavit, itself part of a court filing in support of the auditor-general’s fight for access to all details regarding the hefty indemnifications in the BC Rail case.
Van Dongen began asking questions about the $6-million waiver in his then capacity of whip for the caucus of Liberal MLAs, as soon as the news of the guilty pleas by ex-aides Dave Basi and Bob Virk broke on Oct. 18, 2010.
“I communicated with [then] premier Gordon Campbell, other government ministers and MLAs ... I was not successful in obtaining any information or accountability about the legal fee indemnity agreements or the legal basis for the unprecedented legal fee indemnity waiver.”
As outrage over the waiver began to build, the premier and then-attorney-general Mike de Jong rejected calls for a public inquiry into the decision. “They made these statements without any consultation with government MLAs ... I have always thought there was a serious direct need for a focused public inquiry into the decision if no accountability for this transaction was forthcoming.”
He decided to press for a full disclosure, starting with a briefing for the caucus of government MLAs. To that end, he managed to secure a direct meeting with Campbell himself on Oct. 28.
“I requested that the two deputy ministers who reportedly made the legal fee indemnity waiver decision be asked to come to a full caucus meeting to explain it.” Those being deputy attorney-general David Loukidelis and then deputy finance minister Graham Whitmarsh.
But by the time of his face-to-face with the boss, the caucus whip had a bigger fish to fry. “I was already talking to MLAs about asking him to resign. He told me he would not resign but would stay on ... that the earliest possible date he would resign was June 2011. He further said he would try to extend his term to the fall of 2011 and if possible he would extend to the spring of 2012 after that.”
Next day, having raised the stakes to a much higher level, van Dongen heard through the caucus grapevine of Campbell’s counter-proposal on the briefing. “The proposed meeting would just be with the attorney-general [not the two deputies] who would ‘walk us through’ the legal fee indemnity waiver decision.”
Not good enough for van Dongen and he phoned Campbell to tell him so. “I told him that he should resign immediately ... I requested his resignation for a variety of reasons, but the legal fee indemnity waiver had been the final straw.”
Later in the day – this was Oct. 29, a Friday – he appeared to get his way on the briefing. A meeting of the Liberal caucus was scheduled for the following week “which would involve the attendance of the two deputy ministers to explain the legal fee indemnity waiver and answer questions.”
But over the weekend, things fell apart. On Wednesday, Nov. 3, Campbell, pressured over the harmonized sales tax, BC Rail and other issues, announced his resignation.
The caucus briefing with the deputies was cancelled, rescheduled, then cancelled a second time.
“I concluded that premier Campbell would rather resign than have the two deputies appear in caucus to explain and answer questions about their decision to write off $6 million in legal fees for two former staff members who admitted to criminal offences,” says van Dongen.
A bit of a stretch there, in my view. But he’s not alone in regarding the dubious settlement of the BC Rail case as a crippling blow to both Campbell and his party.
Van Dongen never got his briefing. And, as his application to the court puts it, he “embarked on a mission which continues to this date.”
The latest move, following on his floor-crossing to the Conservatives earlier this spring, sees him filing for intervener status to support Auditor-General John Doyle in court. Doyle is seeking access to material, mainly regarding solicitor-client privilege, to complete a full-blown audit of government indemnities, including the ones in the BC Rail case.
Van Dongen may not succeed in joining what is already an uphill fight. The way the system circled the wagons against full disclosure in this case is discouraging to behold.
But as van Dongen notes in his court filing, if he does gain access to the court, he “would be the only party to this proceeding whose representation by counsel is not funded by taxpayers.”
Yes, folks. He’s paying his own legal bills to help uncover why taxpayers were obliged to shell out $6 million to cover the legal bills of two self-confessed criminals.