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With News of the World, remembering B.C.'s own phone scandal

It pales in comparison to the great scandal of Great Britain, but 21 summers ago British Columbians were questioning the media, government and police when secret recordings of cell phone conversations surfaced.

NDP attorney general critic Moe Sihota delivered one of the biggest bombshells in the House's history when he addressed the legislature on July 11, 1990 (yes, politicians worked in summer back then).

"I wish to rise on a matter of privilege, or more accurately a matter of contempt of Parliament," Sihota said, before tabling transcripts of cell phone calls involving Social Credit attorney general Bud Smith.

"The material that I have placed before you raises the issue of whether the attorney general has violated the independence of his office by discussing with a person that he knew to be in contact with defence counsel matters and strategies relating to the prosecution of the former minister of tourism, and whether by so doing the attorney general is in contempt of Parliament," Sihota said.

The scandal would force Smith to quit cabinet. The reporter to which Smith was romantically linked quit her job.

Another reporter left the press gallery. It was among a long line of scandals that rocked the ruling Social Credit Party until it was finally swept out of office for good in October 1991.

It all began when tourism minister Bill Reid approved a $277,065 grant in 1989 through Growth and Opportunities B.C., a fund created with lottery gambling profits which was engineered to boost projects in constituencies the Socreds held or felt were winnable in the next election.

The Reid money was earmarked to be spent on recycling bins from ECO-Clean Waste Systems Ltd., which happened to be co-owned by Surrey-Newton MLA Reid's campaign manager George Doonan and friend Bill Sullivan.

The RCMP recommended Reid be charged with breach-of-trust, but Smith disagreed. Sihota filed a private prosecution application and hired lawyer Peter Firestone. Smith denied Firestone access to the evidence and Sihota dropped the case.

Sihota picked-up tapes of what were then called "car phone" conversations, via the Canadian Press bureau in Victoria. CP killed its story upon legal advice, so reporter Debi Pelletier arranged for Sihota to take the tapes. The recordings were made by Brian Graves, an ex-CKDA reporter and part-timer with Broadcast News, CP's radio arm.

One tape featured Smith and deputy attorney general Bill Stewart insulting Firestone. Another conversation was of Smith seeking advice from CKVU TV reporter Margot Sinclair on how to deal with the media.

Despite denying bias, Sinclair quit. CP transferred Pelletier to Vancouver. Smith eventually returned to cabinet, but as economic development minister.

Firestone sued for libel and won $12,500 in an out-of-court settlement. Deputy attorney general Ted Hughes said prosecuting Sihota would not be in the public interest, so no charges were laid against the man who is now the B.C. NDP president.

Then-CKNW reporter Kim Emerson quit the Press Gallery board because Sun reporter Keith Baldrey and the Province columnist Brian Kieran opposed creating a committee to examine the media's conduct in the affair.

Kieran later quit reporting and became a lobbyist with Pilothouse Public Affairs. Kieran and co-workers/Liberal "backroom boys" Erik Bornmann and Jamie Elmhirst were key players in the BC Rail corruption scandal, but not charged.

Bob Mackin is a freelance reporter in Vancouver and a regular contributor to The Tyee.

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