Phony hecklers, fake protesters paid by BC Libs, says Virk defence.
By Bill Tieleman
Published: April 24, 2007
Staff members in the office of Premier Gordon Campbell and the B.C. Liberal Party were directly involved in paid media manipulation, the defence in the B.C. legislature raid case alleged in B.C. Supreme Court on Monday.
And a defence lawyer claimed Campbell was aware that the B.C. Liberal Party was paying government staff on the side to organize stacked phone calls to talk radio shows.
The controversial allegations came fast and furious, and seemed to be aimed at building a case that the defendants were operatives constantly carrying out orders from top politicians in the B.C. Liberal Party, and therefore unlikely to act on their own in breaking the law in government dealings.
Kevin McCullough, lawyer for Bob Virk, the former provincial ministerial aide charged with breach of trust and fraud related to the $1 billion B.C. Rail privatization, outlined a litany of activities he alleged involved top government and party officials.
Among the new allegations McCullough made:
- That Premier Gordon Campbell's Press Secretary Mike Morton was involved in directing paid phone callers to talk radio shows as far back as 2002.
- That Campbell knew of the media manipulations arrangements made with David Basi, the other provincial ministerial aide charged with breach of trust and fraud.
- That Campbell blew up at B.C. Liberal Party Executive Director Kelly Reichert because Morton had "fucked up" and sat at a fundraising dinner with officials from OmniTRAX, one of the bidders for B.C. Rail, before the contract was awarded.
- That key Crown witnesses against Basi and Virk -- provincial lobbyists Erik Bornmann and Brian Kieran -- were allowed by the RCMP and Special Prosecutor Bill Berardino to continue their lucrative lobbying business even after disclosing that they had "made serious bribes" to the two aides to obtain government information on the B.C. Rail deal.
- That the RCMP knew Bornmann had lied to the media when he issued a statement saying he had been cleared of any wrongdoing but did nothing about it, not informing the government of the truth.
- That there was "obviously some sort of deal" between Bornmann and the RCMP and Special Prosecutor to allow his lobbying to continue because he was acting as the key Crown witness.
- That Basi was told to "get the posse together" to set up negative phone calls on CKNW's Bill Good show to put difficult questions to New Democratic Party Leader Carole James when she appeared on the program in November 2003.
- That Basi had organized a paid heckler to appear outside a Victoria Safeway store where an environmental group was staging a protest against farmed salmon as television cameras rolled.
- That the B.C. Liberal Party and Basi were involved in what was supposed to look like a genuine protest outside an NDP convention about logging in Youbou.
- That Basi set up an "e-mail chain" about the 2002 privatization of one-third of B.C. Hydro, presumably to support the government's controversial actions.
- That Basi and Reichert worked to "find a way to get Paul Nettleton's expenses out," to presumably embarrass the former Liberal MLA who quit the caucus over the B.C. Hydro privatization and was critical of the B.C. Rail deal.
- That Basi had left a message on the answering machine of the Victoria Solidarity Coalition, a group opposed to the government, saying he was a "mill owner" whose operations had been shut down by the NDP.
- That "there was an intention to put this investigation on the backs of Basi and Virk and take it away from elected officials. Can there be any other reason why the RCMP did not interview the premier?"
Wiretaps cited as sources
On Monday, Mike Morton declined to comment when contacted by my 24 Hours colleague Sean Holman in Victoria, while B.C. Liberal House Leader Mike de Jong refused to discuss the case, saying: "I'm not going to talk about what's going on in court today."
For his part, Premier Campbell said previously that he would not respond to what comes up in court.
But the allegations raised by McCullough were detailed and with each one he cited sources -- such as dates and times when RCMP wiretaps allegedly caught Basi and Reichert discussing dirty tricks; e-mails; RCMP "continuation reports"; and other evidence disclosed to the defence in preparation for the trial.
Ironically, this section of the court hearing in front of Justice Elizabeth Bennett is a defence disclosure application, where lawyers for Basi, Virk and former government communications aide Aneal Basi are arguing to get access to even more information they say has not been provided to them.
In addition to the allegations about the inner workings of media manipulation of talk shows and other political activities, the defence also provided many tantalizing comments that, while not spelled out, suggested interesting other angles on the whole case.
Stacking radio phone calls
Also included in McCullough's allegations Monday were statements:
- That in a Nov. 28, 2003, call intercepted by RCMP between Basi and Mike McDonald "they are looking for an e-mail regarding Ms. James's comments. Mike thinks Gary should take a crack at Carole because it was around the budget. Tom -- I believe that is Syer from the premier's office -- is going to talk to Robert," McCullough said.
- That Tom Syer was Premier Campbell's issues management director at the time.
- That in discussing stacking radio show phone calls, David Basi tells Mike McDonald that "it wasn't him making the call but confesses that it was Jag making the call -- Dave was at home. Dave says: 'Don't use Jag or Jerri on Meisner as they have distinctive voices. Sheila is a white girl who also makes fake calls."
- That although there was no discussion in court as to who these parties are, Ben Meisner was at the time a Prince George radio talk show host, while Jag Bains was a Young Liberal introduced in the legislature by Gary Collins in March 2001, along with Aneal Basi, the former government communications aide who is also now charged with breach of trust.
- That in an intercepted call on Oct. 22, 2003, Basi and Reichert first talk about Bob Virk and then Basi asks: "Is there a question about a cheque for the Camosun guys? Reichert says Dave has the first one."
- That in an intercepted call Oct. 16, 2003, Reichert told Basi that proposed Election Act amendments to allow easier registration of voters, such as aboriginal people and students, had to be stopped. "The changes in those amendments are so profound that we'd lose the next election," Reichert allegedly said.
- That in an intercepted call on Oct. 15, 2003, the RCMP heard Kelly Reichert leave a message for Dave Basi that went: "Hey Dave -- it's Kelly. I want to talk to you about CKNW and the Georgia Straight story."
That column specifically mentions, among others, David Basi, Erik Bornmann, Brian Kieran and Mark Marissen, who was then Martin's campaign director for BC and husband to then-Deputy Premier Christy Clark.
And so it went in court, allegation after allegation raised by the defence.
'Gord was yelling at Reichert'
It was at times as if the roof had been lifted off the giant ant farm that is the BC legislature, letting all in the courtroom have a sneak peak at what just might have been going on there in 2003.
But there were more details than ever before as well.
In the highly controversial allegation related to the $1 billion privatization of B.C. Rail, McCullough said B.C. Liberal Party Executive Director Kelly Reichert was taped by police in a call to Basi on Oct. 28, 2003, discussing a situation where Premier Campbell's Press Secretary Mike Morton sat with OmniTRAX, one of the companies bidding for the rail company, along with their lobbyists from Pilothouse Public Affairs, at a Liberal fundraising dinner.
"Reichert says he gave Gord a three-page memo on Saturday. Gord was yelling at Reichert because Mike Morton had fucked up. There was a dinner where Mike Morton is positioned with OmniTRAX -- he's at the Pilothouse table," McCullough said.
Of course we now know that two of Pilothouse's partners, Erik Bornmann and Brian Kieran, are key witnesses for the Crown against Basi and Virk, while the third, former Liberal Party of Canada B.C. president Jamie Elmhirst, has been subpoenaed to testify in the trial.
Talk show fakery?
Then there were the multiple allegations of manipulating talk radio shows in Vancouver, Victoria and Prince George. Last week McCullough disclosed that Basi was paid $20,000 for two separate "media monitoring" contracts that he said were ""a highly political effort to sway public opinion through the use of radio shows and other events."
On Monday, McCullough went into considerable detail, saying he was quoting from an e-mail he alleged came from Premier Campbell's press secretary Mike Morton to David Basi.
"The first of these emails is from Mike Morton in the Premier's office. It's dated March 11, 2002," McCullough said.
"'Thanks Dave -- I'll let the premier know your team is in place, whereas MM's is not. The premier will be on John McComb's show -- there will be a call-in,'" McCullough read in court.
McComb is a radio talk show host at CKNW AM 980. It is not clear if the "MM" is Mike McDonald, the former B.C. Liberal caucus communications director in Victoria, but McDonald was referred to repeatedly by McCullough.
In one somewhat humorous exchange in court, McCullough read from the transcript of a call between Basi and McDonald.
"'Dave's asking Mike if he wants to make some calls to CKNW after the MLA is on,'" McCullough alleged.
Justice Elizabeth Bennett interjected: "Is this a Liberal MLA?"
Bennett responded: "I should have known that."
McCullough also quoted a Nov. 23, 2003, document alleging calls being set up to apparently ambush NDP Leader Carole James.
"It's a call in response to Carole James -- she's going to be on the Bill Good Show tomorrow -- Mike asks him to 'get the posse together,'" McCullough said.
"They're not just lobbing softball questions to the premier -- they're setting the stage for calls to the leader of the Opposition," McCullough alleged.
In another intercepted call on Oct. 16, 2003, Reichert tells Basi that: "Three MLAs got killed on the Joe Easingwood Show -- just slaughtered." Easingwood is the host of a morning talk radio show on Victoria's CFAX station.
Concern about BC Rail deal
In other intercepted calls -- and McCullough said there were 43 of them between October and December 2003 alone -- there was significant discussion of the B.C. Rail deal.
McCullough referred to a call of Oct. 20, 2003, little more than a month before the B.C. Rail sale to CN Rail was announced.
"In that call, what are Mr. Basi and Mr. Reichert discussing? B.C. Rail polls -- and they both ask each other not to talk to anyone," McCullough alleged.
Then in a Nov. 17, 2003, call, McCullough claims: "Reichert was concerned about validators on B.C. Rail." The B.C. Rail deal was announced days later.
In response to a question from Justice Bennett, McCullough explained that validators are "the government's attempt to get shippers and communities on side" of the B.C. Rail privatization deal.
'Worry about FOI?'
In yet another wiretapped call, Basi shows his contempt for freedom of information laws, according to McCullough.
"Basi: send the e-mail to my work e-mail address."
"Reichert: Can I? I don't have to worry about FOI?"
"Basi: FOI is for those puritanical [inaudible]." McCullough claimed Basi said he deleted such e-mails.
Then back to media manipulation of radio shows.
McCullough quoted Reichert on Dec. 3, 2003: "Gary Collins was live with Bill Good today. Dave said all the calls were positive and, of course, prompted."
In another alleged reference to Press Secretary Mike Morton's role in media manipulation, McCullough said an RCMP-intercepted voice mail message Dec. 4, 2003, for Basi from Reichert said: "Morty wanted me to phone just to let you know the premier is on Terry Moore next Monday." McCullough said "Morty" was believed to be Morton. Terry Moore is a CFAX Victoria radio station host.
There was also extensive discussion by McCullough about the fact that B.C. Liberal Party Executive Director Kelly Reichert is the brother-in-law of RCMP Inspector Kevin DeBruyckere, one of the lead investigators.
McCullough again alleged that DeBruyckere did not disclose that relationship until March of 2004, and that he was interested in references to Reichert caught on wiretaps.
"The defence says it's quite remarkable that Inspector DeBruyckere makes no reference to his relationship to the Liberal party through Mr. Reichert but makes inquiries to the monitoring room about Mr. Reichert," McCullough said. He said DeBruyckere mentions his relationship to Reichert in March 2004 but said there was no information about that disclosure.
By the end of the day McCullough had made clear his purpose with the massive disclosure of the inner workings of the B.C. Liberal government and party.
David Basi and Bob Virk were following government and party orders throughout this period, McCullough said, in a wide variety of highly political operations.
To argue, therefore, as the Crown is, that Basi and Virk were acting on their own in the breach of trust situation simply does not make sense, McCullough inferred.
"This government was using Mr. Basi every which way and the RCMP knew it and they undertook no investigation," McCullough argued, cleverly using the actual title the RCMP gave to their case -- Operation Everywhichway.
"There was an intention to put this investigation on the backs of Mr. Basi and Mr. Virk, and take it away from elected officials."
The case continues and so, likely, does the series of fascinating allegations.
Related Tyee stories:
Basi-Virk Defence: Bold Allegations
Will BC Rail Bomb Explode?
'Spiderman' in a Web of Intrigue
Bill Tieleman is a regular Tyee contributor who writes a column on B.C. politics every Tuesday in 24 Hours, the free weekday newspaper, also online at http://vancouver.24hrs.ca. Tieleman can be heard every Monday at 10 a.m. on the Bill Good Show on CKNW AM 980 or at http://www.cknw.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his blog at: http://billtieleman.blogspot.com.