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Raids: How Big a Scandal?

David Basi and Bob Virk were key players in B.C.'s Liberal government with strong ties to the Prime Minister. The RCMP raid of their offices as part of a probe into drugs and organized crime will likely cloud the next elections, federal and provincial.

Barbara McLintock 30 Dec

Barbara McLintock, a regular contributor to The Tyee, is a freelance writer and consultant based in Victoria and author of Anorexia’s Fallen Angel.

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It started out like so many relatively routine tips that police officers pick up - some unsubstantiated information about trafficking in cocaine and marijuana, deemed to be worthy of further investigation by the Victoria Police Department and the RCMP Drug Section for the Greater Victoria region. But as the officers conducted their probe, the tentacles spread further and further, potentially involving organized crime and police corruption. Then this weekend they reached right inside the B.C. Legislative Buildings - a place where police officers rarely venture except to keep the peace at demonstrations and arrest the odd errant protester.

By late afternoon Sunday, two high level Liberal government officials, their offices raided by police, were gone from their jobs. David Basi, ministerial assistant to Finance Minister Gary Collins, was fired and Bob Virk, the ministerial assistant to Transportation Minister Judith Reid was suspended with pay.

Ties to Paul Martin's campaign

The sight of uniformed sergeants (the operation was considered too sensitive for any officers of lower rank to participate) toting dozens of cardboard cartons containing file folders and documents down the steps at the legislature has given the Gordon Campbell government a political problem unlike any they have experienced in their past 31 months in the office. Moreover, it's a problem that isn't likely to go away any time soon.

Police officers predict that the complexity of dealing with documents seized from the legislature alone will ensure that it will be several months at best before the investigation is concluded and criminal charges, if any, laid. That means the file is likely to be foremost in the public's mind again just weeks or months before the next provincial election. Since one of the Campbell government's first moves in office was to set a fixed election date (we'll go to the polls on May 17, 2005), the premier now doesn't have the option of either speeding up or delaying the election in the hope of avoiding the worst of the fallout.

Moreover, the provincial Liberals may not be the only political party to feel the heat. Several of those apparently embroiled in the scandal also have strong ties to Paul Martin's Liberal leadership team in B.C.

The sole good news so far for the Liberals, both provincial and federal, is that there is no suggestion that any elected MLAs or MPs are in any way involved with the events that have led to the criminal probe. All the police forces involved have taken great pains to make clear that such is the case. Although search warrants were executed in the suites of cabinet offices occupied by Finance Minister Gary Collins and Transportation Minister Judith Reid, the police were not interested in documents belonging to the ministers' themselves, but rather those of their Ministerial Assistants.

Basi wielded considerable power

Ministerial Assistants occupy a strange place in the B.C. political spectrum - a limbo where they are neither professional civil servants nor elected officials. They are paid adequately but not brilliantly; most make somewhere around $60,000 a year. They are pure political appointees, their hiring formalized through cabinet orders, and each serves "at the pleasure" of the cabinet. That's a formal way of saying they have no job security whatsoever, which is what made it so easy for the Campbell administration to dump Collins's Assistant, David Basi, less than 24 hours after the police raids began.

Some Ministerial Assistants are recruited directly by the ministers for whom they work, and such is believed to be the case with Basi. Many more, however, are actually drawn from a pool established by the Premier's Office and assigned to specific ministers. Some cabinet members have almost no choice in who their assistant is. All Assistants, including those recruited by individual ministers, are responsible not just to their ministers, but also directly to the Premier's Office through Chief of Staff Martyn Brown.

The role that Ministerial Assistants play varies widely, depending on the talents, personalities and attitudes of both the various cabinet ministers and their aides. Some appear to be relatively low on the totem pole, doing little more than preparing briefing notes and meeting with disgruntled citizens that the minister has no time for. Others come to occupy positions of significant power within their ministries, dealing with sensitive files and materials, and working closely with the minister in developing and implementing policy. That was the case with Basi. He was seen as Collins's right-hand man, with a particular eye for the electoral implications of the financial decisions being made in government. Because Collins also serves as Government House Leader during legislative sessions, Basi was also prominent in deciding the timing of legislation and the organization of the House's sitting days. He was widely considered one of the most powerful non-elected officials in the government.

Basi held extra sway because he was also one of the people who had influence over both the provincial and federal wings of the Liberal party. A passionate supporter of Paul Martin, he'd been deeply involved in ensuring several B.C. ridings returned Martin delegates during the voting process as well as helping to organize events and fund-raise for the Martin campaign. He and his team of "Basi's Boys" were widely credited for engineering the takeover of former cabinet minister Herb Dhaliwal's riding by Martin supporters.

Virk and Basi: Brothers-in-law

The other Ministerial Assistant whose office was raided, Robert Virk, was also a well-known Martin supporter. He's also Basi's brother in law - their wives are sisters.

Victoria Police Chief Paul Battershill confirmed several other locations were also raided by police officers over the weekend. They included the homes of some of those involved, an accounting firm, and a government relations firm later identified as Pilothouse Public Affairs. The company was begun by former Vancouver Province columnist Brian Kieran, but two of its key officials - Erik Bornman and Jamie Elmhirst -- also have strong ties to the Martin camp.

Also visited by investigating officers, although not formally raided, was Mark Marissen, of Burrard Communications, who was director of the Martin campaign in B.C. - and who's also the husband of Deputy Premier Christy Clark.

Just how all these pieces of the puzzle fit together (if indeed they all do) will have to await the final police report, and charges and trial if any.

Began with police corruption investigation

Battershill said the potential involvement of those in the legislature came relatively late in the investigation as officers from his department and the RCMP followed where the evidence was leading them. It began with the drug information first received more than 18 months ago, he said, and as officers developed the file, they soon realized it could involve an organized criminal operation. The RCMP's experts in organized crime were brought in, as was the provincial Organized Crime Agency. Fairly soon after the file moved to a stage where it was being investigated more actively, the officers realized it also involved the possible corruption of a single police officer, a member of Battershill's own force.

Two weeks before Christmas, Battershill announced that Const. Rob Dosanjh, a 13-year veteran of the department, had been suspended with pay, as required by the Police Act. An investigation involving Const. Dosanjh, 37, was ongoing, he said, involving allegations of obstruction of justice and breach of trust. He provided no details at that time, but has now confirmed that the Dosanjh file and the raids at the legislature are linked. However, he described the relationship between Dosanjh and any of those targeted in the search warrants as "indirect."

As the investigation proceeded, the chief said, the evidence that was being uncovered led officers to want to involve the Commercial Crime Section of the RCMP in a different tentacle of the probe. It was the Commercial Crime portion of the investigation that led to the legislative raids, he said.

Extraordinary powers invoked

The process of both obtaining a search warrant for offices in the legislative buildings and dealing with the potential evidence obtained in the raid is not only complex, but also almost unique in Canada. In fewer than a handful of cases have police ever moved to obtain a search warrant for materials located within the parliament buildings in Ottawa or any of the provinces.

Theoretically, the police have no jurisdiction within the legislative building, unless they have been invited there by the Speaker or one of his designates. It is part of the long British parliamentary tradition of separating the three branches of government (legislative, executive, and judicial), that the Speaker is master of his own house and it cannot be invaded by representatives of the other branches, such as law enforcement.

As well, the police had to convince a Justice of the B.C. Supreme Court that the only way to obtain the evidence they were seeking was through a search warrant of specific offices within the legislative confines. Although the appointment was not made public at the time, the government's Criminal Justice Branch in early December appointed William Berardino as special prosecutor in the case. That allowed Berardino, a highly-respected Vancouver lawyer, to work with the police in drafting the documents necessary to put before the judge.

Once the judge had granted the warrant, Solicitor General Rich Coleman, accompanies by several Mounties, flew to Kamloops, home of House Speaker Claude Richmond. There, on Saturday evening, they explained the situation to Richmond and asked his permission as Speaker to execute the warrants. Richmond gave the necessary consent.

Cabinet files locked up for months

What happens to the seized material next is even more complex. In most cases, once the RCMP or police had executed a search warrant, the material seized is theirs, to begin poring through, to see what useful evidence might be contained in it.

Not so with evidence obtained from the legislative buildings. Before each box was removed from the legislature on Sunday, the legislature's sergeant-at-arms ensured that it was properly sealed. All 37 boxes, along with material seized from computers and hard drives, will now go back to the Supreme Court judge who issued the search warrant. It will be the judge's job to go through all that material without the police or Crown counsel being present. The judge will sort out any material that might be protected by cabinet privilege - documents that relate so closely to decisions being made by cabinet that normally no one outside cabinet and its advisors would ever be allowed to see them. Any material that is covered by lawyer-client privilege will also be removed from the file. Only when that is done will the remaining material be turned over to the RCMP officers for their further investigation. The whole process is expected to take months.

Cloud likely to hang over elections

During that entire time, from a political point of view, the government will be under a cloud. In many ways it is worse for the provincial Liberals even than when Premier Campbell was caught driving drunk in Hawaii just about a year ago. Although Campbell at that time showed incredibly poor judgment and paid the price for it, a common understanding grew up that it was an unusual circumstance and that it couldn't have been further away from his day-to-day routine as premier.

Any conversation that involves cocaine, organized crime, and police corruption cannot but help have a very much nastier tone to it. The mere words "organized crime" imply that whatever happened was done on a premeditated basis, not the idiocy of a moment.

And that tone seems unlikely to vanish through either the federal election expected next spring or, at the speed at which these things usually move, even the provincial one of 2005. 

Barbara McLintock, contributing editor to The Tyee, is a freelance writer and consultant based in Victoria and author of Anorexia's Fallen Angel.  [Tyee]

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