Auditor general Russ Jones is the first to admit that, for any number of reasons, he couldn’t get fully to the bottom of the plea deal that saw two corrupt government aides walk away from their $6.4-million legal bill.
But his report last week does reconfirm the obvious conclusion. B.C. taxpayers were taken to the cleaners during the absurdly long B.C. Rail court process that eventually led to former aides Dave Basi and Bob Virk pleading guilty.
We were snookered. Hapless officials were manoeuvred by process, by convention and by lawyers into a position where the $40-billion-a-year B.C. government felt it couldn’t afford to carry on the case against the aides.
There were suspicions that political forces were in play as well; that B.C. Liberals wanted the case to go away, to avoid embarrassment. But Jones could find no evidence of any political interference. It was bureaucrats who handled this hot potato from start to finish.
Jones said their management wasn’t perfect, but it was principled.
Still, the new cost figures that the audit cites are astounding.
The total cost of the case reached $18.3 million by the time the plug was pulled. And that was at a point where only two witnesses had been heard, with about 40 still to come.
There was a four-year delay in starting the trial, due to complex issues of disclosure and privilege. Forty-two court decisions were made during the criminal proceedings. Through 2007 to 2009, the case was costing taxpayers $2.7 million, $3.5 million and $4.2 million a year, even before the trial had started.
The independent special prosecutor — Vancouver lawyer Bill Berardino — who was retained by the Crown because of the political sensitivity, racked up an $8.1-million tab from 2004 to 2011.
Jones identified $1.5 million in costs just for freedom-of-information and disclosure costs.
There was another million dollars’ worth of police work on the case.
The special indemnity arrangements that Basi and Virk had with the government that covered their legal bills were originally capped at $550,000 and $500,000. Those caps were increased a total of 11 times over the years as costs spiralled.
The defence lawyers and the special prosecutor were billing up to 1,200 hours a month.
The taps to the treasury were left wide open right up until late 2010. Closing the case down involved some manoeuvring between the special prosecutor, the defence lawyers, the Legal Services Branch and the government.
The special prosecutor approached the defence with a plea deal. The defence said the requirement for the defendants to cover their own legal bills if they pleaded guilty was a stopper. So they asked the Legal Services Branch to drop the requirement.
The branch considered that the tab was running at $15,000 a day and the trial had a year to go, so the branch recommended the payback requirement be dropped if the pair pleaded guilty.
The government’s response to the audit included a note of appreciation to Basi and Virk for “co-operating” in the release of some information. For $6.4 million, it’s the least they could do.
Les Leyne writes for the Victoria Times Colonist.