POLITICS
11/10/2011 02:31 EST | Updated 01/10/2012 05:12 EST

B.C. policy won't stop future legal payouts such as for former aides Basi, Virk

VICTORIA - The B.C. government will go after legal costs incurred by government workers found guilty in court, but that doesn't mean taxpayers are completely off the hook for costs such as the $6 million paid to convicted former B.C. government aides David Basi and Bobby Virk, says a report released Thursday.

Attorney General Shirley Bond suggested the government won't be part of plea deals that involve paying legal costs, as occurred last October in the Basi-Virk case.

"There will be a policy framework that requires government to contemplate in every case where there is a guilty verdict or a criminal conviction, the pursuit of assets," she said. "It removes discretion during the process to actually look at doing that (in the Basi-Virk case)."

But taxpayers still might find themselves bailing out defendants because guilty parties simply can't foot their own bills.

Bond said government will assess in every case whether or not the recovery of assets is probable — as occurred in the Basi-Virk case where government officials determined there was little chance of recovering the $6 million in legal fees.

"The likelihood in recovering all of the costs would have to be considered in every case," she said.

The government's decision to pay the Basi-Virk legal fees as part of a plea bargain deal caused an uproar that prompted the government to appoint Stephen Toope, University of British Columbia president, to conduct an independent review of the province's indemnity policy for government workers.

Toope's report said government is obligated, in fairness, to pay the legal costs of its employees while they are considered innocent, but not otherwise.

"The requirement of reimbursement in the case of criminal convictions should be mandatory and not subject to discretion," said Toope in a letter to Attorney General Shirley Bond as part of his report.

Bond said the government will adopt the nine recommendations in Toope's report, including proceeding with plans to go after assets to recover court costs of guilty government workers.

"Yes, we are going to pursue recovery of assets," said Bond in an interview. "Government will be required to pursue the recovery of assets."

The October 2010 guilty pleas of Basi and Virk in the long-running B.C. Rail corruption case saw the government pay $6 million in legal fees incurred by the two former government aides. But the province decided not to go after their assets.

Toope's report said that when it comes to government workers facing charges it is fair and prudent to uphold the integrity of the presumption of innocence, which translates to indemnifying workers from paying legal costs.

"That policy should allow for indemnification throughout the entire criminal process, up to the determination of innocence or guilt," said the report.

In an interview from India, where Toope is participating in Premier Christy Clark's trade mission to Asia, he said it is up to the province to pursue costs following guilty findings.

"In my recommendations, I am at least ensuring that when there's money there to be gained back by government that government should indeed do that."

But he said government's could still end up having to cover the legal costs of government workers found guilty.

"There could still be a circumstance where taxpayers are on the hook, but I want to be clear that that is an extremely unusual circumstance," said Toope.

Opposition New Democrat Leonard Krog said Toope's recommendations provide government with the makings of a solid future policy that outlines the indemnification of government employees facing legal issues.

But it sheds little new information on the decision to pay Basi and Virk's legal fees despite their guilty pleas, he said.

"In terms of uncovering the truth around what happened with the payment of over $6 million, we are no further ahead," Krog said.

Toope said the government paid legal costs of about $11.4 million from 1999 to 2011. He said there were 95 legal cases involving government employees.

Basi and Virk pleaded guilty to charges of breach of trust and accepting bribes and were each sentenced to two years under house arrest.

As part of the plea arrangement, the government agreed to pay the pair's legal costs.

The scandal dates back to December 2003, when police officers raided the B.C. legislature, removing boxes of documents connected to the sale of Crown-owned B.C. Rail.