John van Dongen is nothing if not persistent.
The Independent MLA for Abbotsford South has spent years mulling over troublesome unanswered questions about who knew what about the 2003 sale of BC Rail by the government to Canadian National Rail. Burning questions about the conduct of government officials, lobbyists and consultants, even of former Premier Gordon Campbell and then deputy premier and Education Minister Christy Clark, now the premier.
Others also raised questions – eventually government ministerial aides Dave Basi and Bob Virk were charged, and they pleaded guilty in 2010 to breach of trust, for leaking documents, and accepting bribes for that inside information on the BC Rail bidding process.
But the scandal still smoulders.
Van Dongen and others want to know why the guilty men had their $6 million in legal fees paid by the Liberal government, in contravention of government policy.
When disclosure was not forthcoming, and when the province's auditor general John Doyle sued the government to find out why, van Dongen asked for and received intervenor status in the proceedings, which are ongoing.
And Van Dongen – and others – still allege that Clark too had shared confidential information about the BC Rail bid with lobbyists, despite her claims over the years that she had nothing to do with the matter. In fact, he said it was because of this failure of integrity in the premier that he left the B.C. Liberals in March.
Now Van Dongen has compiled documents, emails and transcripts gathered from mostly public sources that he says show she was indeed in conflict of interest, that she shared confidential details on the bidding process to lobbyists working for OmniTrax, one of the bidders.
Because "she was leaking like a sieve, in my humble opinion," he said, van Dongen submitted a 23-page complaint with 43 supporting appendices to Conflict of Interest Commissioner Paul Fraser last week.
“I am asking for, from a legal perspective, for an investigation including an inquiry, which will put her and others under oath. I believe that's the only way to deal with this appropriately. I'm asking because there are reasonable, probable grounds that there are interventions of the Act,” he said.
He doesn’t want the public to just take his word on it – he’s posted all the submitted documents on his website, johnvandongen.ca, for the public to read for themselves.
He brought copies for the Times on Thursday and cracked open the 2.5-inch binder to share some points.
It makes for some dramatic reading.
In Tab 26, for example, acerbic political blogger Alex Tsakumis notes that Clark hosted a 2003 toga party for her then husband, Mark Marissen – the guests included Basi, Virk and OmniTrax lobbyists (with whom Marissen worked), people that Clark has insisted she has known only superficially.
Tab 17 shows a June 24, 2003 receipt from the Colorado-based OmniTrax for $2,400 to “Christ Clark fundraising dinner.”
Other tabs show diary entries from lobbyists meeting with Clark for chats, including dinner at her house.
Van Dongen also points out while Clark made a point of removing herself from the final legislative vote on the BC Rail sale on Dec. 2, 2003, but her gesture begs the question, had she excused herself from earlier cabinet discussions on the matter, he asks.
For her part, last week Clark again denied any wrongdoing and promised full cooperation with the commissioner, however he chooses to proceed.
Van Dongen is committed to his pursuit – not only did he leave the Liberal Party, whose values and policies he continues to support, he says, he has also put more than $100,000 of his own money into research and legal fees toward his mission.
He insists it’s not personal, and it’s not political. As an MLA, he says he has a duty to pursue the questions.
“No it’s not a personal thing at all. It's not about politics, contrary to what some people are trying to say. It's about ensuring accountability and transparency for people's performance, and ensuring we have the best possible leadership in the province of British Columbia,” van Dongen said.
Even though the matter goes back a decade, B.C. residents should care because the premier’s role has such influence over the life of the province, he said.
“If that person doesn’t have ethics and integrity then everything else gets distorted. It's very, very powerful position and that's why it's so important to get the right person there, that's why I'm focused on it,” he said.
“Some people say I'm obsessed, and yes I’m obsessed, with getting good leadership for both British Columbia, and the Liberals.”
And through van Dongen’s eyes, patterns of “avoidance” continue in Clark’s administration.
He cited lack of transparency in relation to the BC Place/Telus sign deal, the Morrison mine deal, the Basi-Virk legal fees, the resignation of Clark’s chief of staff, Ken Boessenkool.
“The ethics issues are pervasive. They extend across most of the decisions this premier is making today, so it does affect all British Columbians, my constituents,” he said.
But despite his claims that this pursuit is not personal, van Dongen suddenly did get personal at the end of the interview.
“I take no joy in this,” he said and he choked up.
“It’s about electoral responsibility, it’s about what’s good for the province. It bothered me too much. I couldn’t ignore it.”
Conflict with conflict commissioner’s son
After finding out the conflict commissioner’s son is a longtime acquaintance of Christy Clark and also works in a senior post in the government, Abbotsford South MLA John van Dongen is now asking if the conflict commissioner himself may be in a conflict.
On Friday (Nov. 9) van Dongen asked that someone other than the Conflict of Interest Commissioner look into his request to review Premier Christy Clark’s activities in relation to the sale of BC Rail.
Van Dongen was informed that Commissioner Paul Fraser’s son, John Paul Fraser, works in the government as the assistant deputy minister for strategic planning and public engagement at the public affairs bureau.
In addition, van Dongen was told that Fraser’s son has known Clark for more than 20 years, had volunteered on her leadership campaign and at one time worked with Mark Marissen, Clark’s former husband, at Burrard Communications Inc.
In his Friday press release, van Dongen writes: “The integrity of our conflict of our interest system depends on public confidence in the system’s impartiality . . . justice must not only be done, but must manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done.”
Van Dongen said the premier should have asked the commissioner to disclose all of these facts to him at the outset so that he could “have a meaningful opportunity to consider whether they raise a ‘reasonable apprehension of bias,’ which would disqualify the Commissioner.”
“What if these facts had never come to the public attention until long after the Commissioner’s ruling on his request for an investigation,” asked van Dongen.
“The public is entitled to have confidence in the integrity of the conflict of interest complaint process. So is the Legislature. So am I.
Accordingly, I will be asking Paul Fraser the Conflict of Interest Commissioner to remove himself from dealing with my request for an investigation.”
As of Monday, the Conflict of Commissioner’s office had not yet made an announcement regarding van Dongen’s request to look into Clark’s possible conflict of interest.
– Christina Toth