Bill Vander Zalm: Former B.C. Premiers Flustered During Testy Exchanges With Lawyer Over Lawsuit

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Former British Columbia premier Bill Vander Zalm appeared flustered Thursday during several testy exchanges with a lawyer who challenged statements he made in a book and sworn affidavit but couldn't support in court. (CP) | CP

VANCOUVER - Former British Columbia premier Bill Vander Zalm appeared flustered Thursday during several testy exchanges with a lawyer who challenged statements he made in a book and sworn affidavit but couldn't support in court.

The ex-premier's testimony drew cringes from people in the gallery as he tried to defend himself against a defamation lawsuit filed by former conflict of interest commissioner Ted Hughes.

Hughes, 84, claims Vander Zalm's "shocking" allegations in the 2008 book "Bill Vander Zalm: For the People" attacked his good name.

In 1991, Hughes conducted an inquiry into the controversial sale of Vander Zalm's Fantasy Gardens theme park and found the premier had breached conflict of interest guidelines by mixing his public and private affairs.

Vander Zalm, who immediately resigned on April 2, 1991, the day Hughes' report was released, told the trial that the inquiry involved a flawed process and lawyers who were philosophically opposed to him.

"The review, or inquiry, was conducted in the cabinet offices in a rather stark room, and we were only allowed to come in one at a time so I couldn't be with my wife. So it was me and it was her separate.

"There were three people there, two lawyers and Mr. Hughes, and they would fire questions rapidly one after another and then they would huddle and talk a bit and come back and fire more questions," he said.

"The whole thing was very strange, never seen anything like it. Didn't know it existed that way."

Vander Zalm said in his book, portions of which were read in court, that one of the lawyers, Joe Arvay, had once likened a human fetus to a wolf or a tree and that as a Catholic, such views made him uncomfortable.

After repeated questioning by Hughes' lawyer Irwin Nathanson, Vander Zalm said he didn't know if what he'd written about Arvay was true and that he had read it somewhere.

He also couldn't support writing that Arvay "despised my position on abortion," other than saying the high-profile lawyer had defended anti-abortionists.

Vander Zalm also wrote that the political and personal views of Arvay and his co-counsel John Finlay "couldn't have conflicted more with my own."

"You didn't know anything about John Finlay's philosophy that was opposed to yours," Nathanson said.

"Very little," Vander Zalm replied.

"You knew nothing, not very little," Nathanson shot back.

Vander Zalm told the trial, and wrote in his book, that Hughes insisted on a written letter from him saying an election wouldn't be called during the inquiry, which ran from February to March 1991.

But he has said in a sworn affidavit that it was his deputy, David Emerson, who'd spoken with Hughes, who also testified he made no such request of Vander Zalm.

Hughes found Vander Zalm in breach of conflict of interest guidelines, forcing the premier to resign on April 2, 1991, the day the inquiry report was released.

The most controversial aspect of the public backlash before the inquiry involved allegations that Vander Zalm accepted US$20,000 at a hotel from a Taiwanese billionaire around midnight on Aug. 4, 1990.

Hughes wrote in his report that he had "grave concerns" about Vander Zalm's inability to explain his actions during the inquiry.

The former premier had failed to mention the cash to Hughes until confronted with a tape recording of the exchange provided to Hughes by a woman who'd brokered the Fantasy Gardens deal.

"There was no reason to keep it secret," Nathanson said.

"Yes, I think so," Vander Zalm said. "Do I want to tell the world that he's got $20,000 in a safe some place?"

The former premier said he accepted the cash from Yu "for innocent reasons."

"'I want you to put this in my safe, safety,'" he said Yu told him.

Vander Zalm couldn't explain why he didn't mention anything in an August 1991 public statement about not challenging the US$20,000 aspect of Hughes' findings against him when he filed an unsuccessful request to have a B.C. Supreme Court judge review the decision.

He also omitted that issue in his book.

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