Tuesday, November 13, 2012

BC's Conflict of Interest Commissioner in conflict himself over son's senior role in BC Liberal government, says MLA John van Dongen

Only in BC, You Say? Conflict Commissioner Paul Fraser Conflicted Himself

Fraser's job is to watchdog premier but his son has key role working for Christy Clark. Independent MLA John van Dongen cries foul, Green Party, Integrity BC agree.
Paul Fraser 


Conflict of Interest Commissioner Paul Fraser has just announced he will recuse himself from investigating MLA John van Dongen's complaint against Premier Christy Clark.  Fraser's news release is here.  

The short version is this direct quote: "I now recuse myself from any further substantive involvement in this matter."
Here is my original column

Bill Tieleman’s 24 hours/The Tyee column
Tuesday November 13, 2012
By Bill Tieleman
"Careful supervision of the disclosure process proves the adage that 'sunlight is always the best disinfectant.'"
- B.C. Conflict of Interest Commissioner Paul Fraser
Would you go to a doctor who couldn't diagnose a common cold?
Or hire a plumber who didn't spot a leaking pipe?
So why does British Columbia have a conflict of interest commissioner who doesn't recognize a conflict when he's in one himself?
Only in B.C. you say? Pity indeed that Paul Fraser sees nothing wrong with investigating a complaint by independent MLA John van Dongen against Premier Christy Clark's actions while the commissioner’s son John Paul Fraser:
• Holds a senior B.C. government political job doing communications for Clark and her colleagues;
Worked on Clark's successful B.C. Liberal party leadership campaign;
Used to work for the father of Clark's son, her ex-husband political consultant and former lobbyist Mark Marissen.
Not understanding that such a perceived conflict of interest clearly disqualifies Fraser from ruling on van Dongen's complaint is astonishing!
Fraser told the Vancouver Sun's Jonathan Fowlie that he had no trouble dealing with van Dongen's investigation request.
"I don't perceive a problem in making a decision in this case that will have nothing to do with my son's career," Fraser said.
"If I had any difficulty, or felt that I in any way couldn't handle this file like I do every file -- on the basis that I will go where it takes me, and I will make the decision that needs to be made without, dare I say it, fear or favour -- then I should pack it in," he added.
Ironically, Paul Fraser's own message in last year's commissioner's report states:
"The work that this Office does is part of the covenant of integrity that Members of the Legislature have with the citizens of British Columbia. The work is important as a democratic safeguard to ensure that private interest is not allowed to trump public duty."
Hard to disagree with that concept.
Van Dongen's complaint
But it's even harder to see how the commissioner can rule on van Dongen's complaint, which alleges that Clark participated in some discussions on the $1 billion sale of B.C. Rail in 2003 but excused herself from others because at that time Marissen was a consultant to CIBC World Markets, the firm supervising the privatization.
Abbotsford-South MLA van Dongen is a former B.C. Liberal cabinet minister who quit the party in part over B.C. Rail issues and the government's payment of $6 million in legal fees incurred by former ministerial aides David Basi and Bob Virk, despite their making surprise guilty pleas in Oct. 2010.
He is also an intervener at his own expense at Auditor General John Doyle's court application to obtain government records about the indemnity granted Basi and Virk and other officials whose legal fees were charged to taxpayers.
Fraser is a well respected lawyer and neither his integrity, nor his son's, are being questioned. But his judgment is dead wrong.
The argument van Dongen makes is powerful.
"I believe there is a reasonable apprehension of bias on the part of the commissioner," he said in a statement Friday.
"I must stress that at this time I am not making an allegation that the commissioner is guilty of actual bias. I am simply saying that there is a basis for a reasonable apprehension of bias on these facts which requires that someone other than Paul Fraser carry out the duties under the Members' Conflict of Interest Act."
In a telephone interview Sunday night van Dongen said he finds it disturbing that neither Fraser nor Clark understand the principles behind his complaint.
"It's a real concern that neither Paul Fraser nor Christy Clark acknowledge the real issue here," van Dongen said. "There's a critical need to maintain the independence of the conflict commissioner. It should embody the highest principles of judicial independence."
'Totally unfair': Clark
On Friday in Kamloops, Clark claimed that it was "totally unfair" of opponents to question Fraser's integrity to go after her.
"Paul Fraser is a highly respected lawyer in British Columbia. He was selected by a bi-partisan committee in the Legislature and he has never been accused of bias," she told the Kamloops Daily News.
"He's a man of great integrity. His reputation is absolutely spotless. It's totally unfair to drag his reputation through the mud as a way to launch a political attack on me," Clark alleged.
But van Dongen rejects that characterization of his objections to Fraser's role.
"It isn't just the situation of his son being in a very senior position in government communications, it's the comments that Paul Fraser doesn't perceive that as a problem," he said Sunday.
'Fraser must recuse himself': Green leader Sterk
The request by van Dongen that Fraser remove himself from the investigation also has the strong support of Green Party leader Jane Sterk and Integrity B.C., the watchdog group promoting political ethics and accountability.
In an email Saturday to 24 hours Sterk states: "Paul Fraser must recuse himself from investigating John Van Dongen's complaint against Christy Clark."
"Van Dongen is making very serious allegations about Clark's potential conflict of interest on the B.C. Rail sale."
"No matter what Fraser does, the fact that his son is a friend of Ms. Clark and is employed in a senior position in the government means there will be a perception of bias."
"Fraser should ask a senior member of his office to undertake this investigation," Sterk concludes.
And Integrity B.C. also believes Fraser must remove himself from the investigation.
"The appearances of Mr. Fraser's conflict in this matter -- which is already so rife with very real conflicts and additional appearances of conflict -- should make it readily apparent to him that it is inappropriate for him to conduct this investigation. The public deserves no less," Integrity B.C. executive director Dermod Travis told 24 hours and The Tyee by email Sunday.
NDP expresses trust in Fraser
But surprisingly, the B.C. New Democrats are supporting Fraser's position.
"We think Mr. Fraser has a high level of integrity over the past years and we support his judgement -- we think he will do the right thing," NDP MLA Shane Simpson told The Tyee Monday.
"This is an issue about Ms. Clark, not Mr. Fraser," said Simpson, MLA for Vancouver-Hastings.
Fraser has already conducted one investigation and rejected any wrongdoing on Clark's part since his son was appointed assistant deputy minister of Government Communications and Public Engagement on April 8, 2011.
That investigation was requested May 5, 2011 by a member of the public to determine if Clark had, in the words of the Commissioner's 2011 annual report:
"Breached the Members' Conflict of Interest Act by appearing in and using government announcements while campaigning in a by-election to win her seat in Vancouver-Point Grey."
"The individual believed that government resources might have been used to 'facilitate' the premier's by-election campaign, including her attendance at public and media events," it stated.
And Clark certainly found lots of good news announcements to make before the May 11, 2011 vote that she narrowly won over the NDP's David Eby by less than 600 votes.
For example, on April 21, Clark celebrated Earth Day with a $4.7 million "green investment" grant to Simon Fraser University to fund a biomass energy project, speaking and watching a singing choir of happy kids.
And Clark announced $13.3 million in funding for a new home for families visiting their sick kids at Vancouver's B.C. Children's Hospital on April 28.
Fraser found no conflict in any of Clark's actions, responding directly to the member of the public five days after receiving the request to investigate, saying in a May 10, 2011 letter that:
"I can find anything in either written or electronic form that would support the suggestion that government resources were used in whole or in part, to promote the premier's by-election campaign."
"The fact that she is, at the same time, seeking election to the Legislative Assembly does not and should not prohibit her from carrying on her duties as premier, including making public interest announcements and attending events recording government policy and actions," he concluded.
Power of perception
Fraser's ruling may be completely fair based on the facts he investigated.
But just as in the van Dongen situation, his letter of response did not disclose that his son was by that time working as a senior member of Clark's communications team, hired under an Order In Council that can be rescinded by the premier at any time.
Perhaps that isn't important. It might have made absolutely no difference to the member of the public who requested the investigation or to media who reported it.
But that's the whole point about "perceived conflict of interest" -- it isn't that a conflict exists, just that there is a perception of conflict which creates doubt.
It's unfortunate for both Fraser and his son that their careers have collided in this way.
However it is far more unfortunate that Fraser not only didn't even perceive a problem but also failed to disclose that potential to van Dongen right from the start of the MLA's complaint.
Now the only solution is for Fraser to remove himself from the investigation.
But will other conflict of interest cases also put Fraser in an equally untenable position?
And it's troubling that Clark is already holding out Fraser's report into van Dongen's complaint as the final word, saying to the Kamloops Daily News that she’ll be glad when Fraser's B.C. Rail probe is over: "because this will finally, with this report, stick a fork in it."
Is that the premier pre-judging Fraser's unfinished report in public? Not politically wise and definitely not reassuring.
Fraser's reappointment pending
In another twist of political fate, Fraser's own reappointment for another term as commissioner is due to happen shortly.
New Democrat MLA Leonard Krog declined all comment on Fraser's reappointment or even the status of it when contacted Saturday.
Krog sits on the all party special committee that will soon advise the Legislature on the matter.
It's time that the public had a little sunlight shone on the Conflict of Interest Commissioner's status and how he could continue in his job given his current conflicted state.
But given Krog's colleague Shane Simpson's comments on Fraser's position, there seems little doubt that Fraser will be reappointed to another five-year term with NDP and B.C. Liberal support.

UPDATE - BC Independent MLA Bob Simpson agrees with John van Dongen call for Paul Fraser to recuse himself.

Earlier this morning I spoke with independent MLA Bob Simpson - Cariboo North - who says he agrees with van Dongen, Sterk and Integrity B.C. that the Conflict of Interest Commissioner should recuse himself from dealing with van Dongen's complaint.

"John van Dongen is correct in his contention that given the duration and twists and turns [of the B.C. Rail case] the premier should request a different process," Simpson said.  "Perception does count in these cases."

Fraser has since announced he will recuse himself from the investigation.



e.a.f. said...

it might be a good idea for the two ndp members of this committee to be replaced. If they don't get the concept, they should not be there. If they can't get the concept of scoring political points by opposing Fraser, they need to go. They won't help the the public's view of the NDP if they don't get the concept of conflict of interest.

Shane Simpson ought to know better. If he doesn't, lets hope he doesn't make it into cabinet. With an attitude such as his, Dix will be a one term wonder.

Clark will be bounced by the voters, in part because the lieberal's inability to know right from wrong & think the public doesn't get it. Should the NDP goe down the same road, regardless of how right they think they are, they will be a one term government. People are tired of the "closeness" of all the game players. During this time period, leading up to the election, voters will be giving the NDP a close look. Shane Simpson's attitude may not be what people want to see. He will be re elected in his riding but his opinions will impact how well others do in their ridings.

DPL said...

Job for life seems to be the way things are going . The guy sure didn't do the right thing by removing himself and as more people were complaining finally removed himself. Is there no honest sound thinking people rotating in and around the government. Good for Van Dongen for forcing the issue.And one can only wonder where he has been getting the money to pursue the case.

Anonymous said...

Shane Simpson isn't the only problem. Another is Spencer Herbert MLA for the West End. His attitude reeks of arrogance.

and like it or not, the NDP will be dissected like a lab specimen by the voters. Do not expect the NDP to get away with much, since if they do what they have been perpetually being critical of the BC Liberals doing, they will be hypocrites.

Still suspicious as to why VanDongen would be spending $100,000 and climbing on a case just to petition for a hearing. That's just for the hearing to see if an inquiry is warranted based on filed facts (not conjecture or whiny "I want an inquiry") , not an actual outcome of an inquiry.

The inquiry if it comes may also find no legal wrongdoing, nor no actual factual wrongdoing at all, just optics.

Commisioner is not "job for life". It is based on a renewable term, and there's no guarantee of "job for life".

There will be many "jobs for life" gone from BC Liberals, but those will be replaced with "jobs for life" for NDP supporters.

Anonymous said...

"I have given further and considerable thought to the perception issue. I have concluded that given the very unique circumstances here – circumstances in which there is a familial connection to a part of the history in which a conflict appears to be alleged, combined with the acute political controversy that the 'BC Rail' file has occasioned in this Province – it is unfair for me to ask the Members of the Legislative Assembly or the public to bear the uncertain burden of my continued involvement in Mr. van Dongen's request." Wouldn't this apply to any and all files that Fraser touches? When's his term over?

Here's another father/son conflict for y'all.

Anonymous said...

Why would it involve any and all files that Fraser touches?

The premise here is perceived conflict as his son works in government. Not direct conflict of interest. The two are very different.

The length of term is 5 years.

Fraser was appointed in January 2008, so his term ends January 2013.

Appointments are made by the Legislature, not the Premier's Office nor by Cabinet.

The Commissioner is an officer of the Legislative Assembly, and not at any time a part of the Government and is not beholden to Cabinet.

You're welcome.

Anonymous said...

The BC liberal just do NOT care about impression or what honest Bc taxpayer think.The BC Fiberals are resigned to the fact that they will be badly losing the next election and they are maxing out their credit cards,increasing pension and severance packages and they don't care what BC taxpayers think anymore since they will be able to walk away from all the messes they have created.The Bc liberal just do NOT care, lining their wallets is number one priority.

Anonymous said...

Just like the NDP did in 2001

Anonymous said...

Campbell's first election lie, the BCR was not for sale?? Everything went down hill from there. Christy was Deputy Premier. The rest of the Liberal Ministers were there too. The farce of the trial. Taking tax dollars, to pay the two patsies legal fees?? This was one of the most sleazy crimes, in Canadian history.

However, in Canada corrupt thieving politicians are rewarded.

BC is a dead, thieved out province. Christy chose to work for Harper, as Campbell did before her. Christy didn't even try, to clean up Campbell's corruption. That sunk Christy right there. She was known as, another Gordon Campbell, wearing a skirt. I do believe, Christy is doing her part, to destroy BC, just as Campbell did. Nor, do we forget Harper's part either.

Anonymous said...

The "Right"s attempt to pull the wool over voters eyes is hampered by internet subscribers everywhere. Romney needed to learn that honesty is a better policy during an election. Mother Jones' exposure of the 47% indicates that internet media (along with digital photography) will help or destroy campaigns everywhere. Demographics will also play a key part in future elections in our country. As the "old guard" passes, newer and younger ideas will decide who will be our new leaders. Tired old ideas from the long passed will be a footnote sooner than later.
The anon replies frquently that the NDP will be the same old, same old, but there is little to compare to a "fudgeit budget" with what we are currently stuck with both federally and provincially. $60 Billion provincial debt and a $600 Billion federal debt is no comparison. Selling our oil assets to China won't help with the debt. China has more n.g. than does Canada. Investing $4 million in ads and another $200 grand to see if the ads worked is just ridiculous. What we need is serious debt reduction, not more MPs. What we do NOT need is to elect senators(as I heard the province has requested), because we do NOT even need a senate as it's stacked by current leaders anyway. Too much money wasted everywhere! Canada is not far from a "made in Canada" recession. Except in Victoria, and Ottawa.

Anonymous said...

The left's attempt to pull the wool over voter's eyes is hampered by internet subscribers everywhere.

Remember Muike Harcourt's mantra:

"An NDP government will be as honest as the taxpayers who pay for it"

The "honesty" has yet to be proven with an Adrian Dix government.

It will be up to the NDP candidates to prove themselves, not the right wing voters or anyone else.

Christy Clark's government has been an abysaml failure on many things.

Big deal, already known, old news.

What would be new would be for the NDP and their supporters to outline exactly without political rhetoric
what an Adrian Dix government is going to do for, and going to do the province.

Anonymous said...

There is only one thing I want the NDP govt. to do and that is to stop wasting taxpayers money. The Libs are a dismal failure at debt reduction. Comparing the 2 parties (and previous), it is clear that the Libs are more corrupt than ALL previous governments including the Zalm. This province has suffered long enough. I doubt it could get any worse.

Unknown said...

We want an honest government. So tell us the truth about B.C. Rail.The Bc liberals have forced many families to suffer, your motto "Families First" was so meaningless, just as your party has become!Let's bring on the full BC Rail fraud inquiry and uncover the fraudulent details about the Basi -- Virk payoff.Hope to see you charged with fraud after your party loses the next election.All i'm waiting to hear from Dix is the announcement of an inquiry into B.C. Rail. with subpoena's, and an inquiry into the Basi.Virk payolla, with more subpoena's. That should put Captain Crusty on a one way ticket to a non extradition treaty country, to avoid jail time. Collin Hansen will probably sing like a canary, as he was going to when the libs paid 6 million dollars to two lawyers hoping the hush money
would have put the whole fraud sale to rest and the BC taxpayer would forget about selling one of BC taxpayer best assets, BC rail.Maybe not giving a way dividend paying assets like BC Rail would help with the revenue side,When you sell assets to cover regular spending, you are either in big trouble, or are being really stupid..

Anonymous said...

Won't get any worse but certainly won't be the magical land of bliss either.

The NDP will make mistakes and there will be a big one (there always is with any government).

Honesty and the NDP don't always go together in the same paragraph.

Anonymous said...

"A wholly owned subsiderary of the BC Business Association" is what has been used to describe the BC Liberal Party. Makes you wonder if that association is cut from the same "cloth" as the BC Liberals. The malfeasance and kleptocracy must be ended and the "rot" that is politics in this province, be exposed and replaced with an accountable and integrity based system.