POLITICS

Former Liberal John van Dongen granted intervenor status in BC Rail case

06/01/2012 01:44 EDT | Updated 08/01/2012 05:12 EDT
VANCOUVER - A Fraser Valley MLA has won a victory in his bid to uncover why the province paid $6 million in legal bills for two former ministerial aides who pleaded guilty to leaking government documents.

B.C. Supreme Court granted John van Dongen intervenor status in the provincial auditor general's application to review the government's decision to waive legal costs for the men involved in the 2003 privatization sale of BC Rail.

Van Dongen, who jumped from the B.C. Liberals to the B.C. Conservative party in March, said Friday he wants to ensure the public's money is responsibly spent and that his position as a former cabinet minister gives him a unique perspective on the matter.

He said the issue goes far beyond the controversial payout to Dave Basi and Bobby Virk and that the auditor general should not have to return to court over documents he should already have unfettered access to as part of his responsibilities.

"It's about trying to establish as broad an interpretation about the Auditor General Act as we possibly can, to put before the court that the public interest is paramount and that the auditor general has as much scope as possible to do the work that he's required to do on behalf of the people of British Columbia," he said in an interview.

Van Dongen, a former solicitor general, said the province has made 99 indemnity agreements during the last 15 years, going back to before the Liberals took office from the New Democrats in 2001.

The Liberal government has said all the necessary documents involving Basi and Virk's legal saga have already been forwarded to auditor general John Doyle.

But van Dongen's lawyer, Roger McConchie, said outside court that there are more documents involving legal bills pertaining to the two men, which prompted Doyle to launch the indemnity review and try to get his hands on more documents through the courts.

McConchie said during his submissions to the court that a democracy must ensure the auditor general has the power to hold the executive branch of the government accountable to the legislature in terms of how the public's money is spent.

Sandra Harper, one of two lawyers who held Basi and Virk's legal files as an intermediary between their lawyers and the government, argued against van Dongen's position.

"It's so politically motivated and so off topic that I'm very concerned that Mr. van Dongen's real message is not inside court but outside court and there's a very real concern of the application becoming politicized," she said.

"The Basi-Virk matter has been political enough," Harper said, adding she's in the unique position of not representing any client.

Harper agreed with Michael Frey, a lawyer for unrepresented interests, who said van Dongen's application hijacks from the real issues involved in Doyle's indemnity review.

Frey said van Dongen does not have a unique perspective on the issue in terms of government transparency and scrutiny of spending.

However, Chief Justice Robert Bauman said he's satisfied that van Dongen will make a responsible intervention in the review.

He said case is about the relationship between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.

The case against Basi and Virk involved police raids on their legislature offices on Dec. 28, 2003, when Basi worked as ministerial aide to the finance minister and Virk was an aide for the transportation minister.

Legal arguments dragged on for at least five years before the trial finally began in May 2009.

But proceedings came to a halt on Oct. 18, 2010, when Basi and Virk pled guilty to leaking confidential information to a lobbyist representing a U.S. company that was bidding on the freight division of BC Rail, which was eventually sold to CN Rail.

That afternoon, then-attorney general Mike de Jong announced the government had waived the men's legal fees.

"I only heard about it when the public heard about it," van Dongen said Friday.

"I had lots of questions and I still have the same questions. That's what this is about. It's about getting the facts and it's about getting answers, and we haven't got them."

As part of their plea deal, Basi and Virk admitted to breach of trust and accepting benefits including thousands of dollars and gifts including tickets to a Denver Broncos football game with their wives.

The men were ordered to serve two years less a day under house arrest.

The Crown stayed the charges against a third man, Aneal Basi, Dave Basi's cousin, who was accused of money laundering and worked in government communications.

The current application is expected to be heard during the week of June 18, although the matter may be adjourned to Sept. 10.