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Spiderman in a Web of Intrigue

The Basi-Virk-BC Rail probe may yield BC’s biggest scandal yet. If so, meet the Crown’s mysterious star witness: ‘Spiderman’ Erik Bornman.

Bill Tieleman 10 May

Bill Tieleman is president of West Star Communications, a strategy and communications consulting firm, providing services for labour, business, non-profits and governments for the past 13 years. Previously, he was the communications director in the B.C. Premier's Office and at the BC Federation of Labour.

Bill is a former columnist with The Tyee and 24 Hours. He regularly comments on TV, radio, print and Internet media outlets.

Most recently Bill was Strategist for Fight HST, a grassroots organization he started with former Premier Bill Vander Zalm and others, that successfully overturned the Harmonized Sales Tax in British Columbia through a citizens’ initiative petition and binding referendum.

Bill holds a masters degree in political science from UBC.

Twitter: @BillTieleman

Website: Bill Tieleman

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Erik Bornman’s nickname is Spiderman but the former top Paul Martin aide is now stuck in a sticky web of intrigue that includes the tainted $1 billion BC Rail privatization deal, drug trafficking, influence peddling and the impending high-profile trial of accused ex-BC Liberal ministerial aides David Basi and Bob Virk.

How did Bornman, a well-connected BC and federal Liberal operative, become the crown’s key witness against his former friends Basi and Virk in the trial arising from the dramatic police raid on the BC Legislature in December 2003?

Why are most media outlets all but ignoring Bornman and his extensive links to both the federal and provincial Liberal governments?

And why has one of BC’s top Supreme Court justices refused to release information about two mysterious search warrants connected to the case before the May 17 provincial election?

These unanswered questions are just part of one of the most fascinating scandals in BC political history and it’s far from over.

The whole story will not likely come out until Bornman testifies against Basi and Virk sometime in 2006, when their trial on allegations of bribery, influence peddling and breach of trust is scheduled to occur.

But in the meantime, much is known about Bornman and his pivotal role in the scandal that has rocked two governments.

Dirty tricks resume

Bornman, 28, is a controversial figure even within the BC and federal Liberal parties, with a chequered past that includes some dubious political activities.

Bornman earned his nickname Spiderman after he entered a locked federal Liberal Party office – which contained the BC membership list during the time of the leadership battle between Paul Martin and Jean Chretien – through the ceiling.

In 1999, Bornman helped organize a federal Young Liberal convention in Victoria’s Traveller's Inn that turned into a drunken hotel-trashing. The party was sued for $10,000 in damages by owner John Asfar but he settled out of court.

Surprisingly, in 2003 Bornman was listed as the registered lobbyist for Asfar's efforts to locate a casino in a Victoria hotel.

But in an email to me last year after I reported on Bornman’s lobbying record, Asfar claimed that Bornman never lobbied government on behalf of his company.

“Secondly, Eric Bowman [sic] has never lobbied for me or any of my related companies with Government! Not once!!! He was hired by our company to introduce us to a private casino operator in Wells, BC (The Jack O’ clubs Casino operation). ….,” Asfar wrote on March 18, 2004. “He [Bornman] prematurely and proactively registered my company and his company without our consent or any contractual agreement. He was forward marketing himself and anticipated presumptuously that our relationship would expand if he was successful in the introducing us to the casino owners.”

Long list of clients

But despite these and other controversies, Bornman had created a successful career as a provincial government lobbyist for major corporations.

Bornman and Kieran were the registered provincial lobbyists for OmniTRAX, the US-based rail company that was bidding for BC Rail against eventual winner CN Rail and CP Rail, which dropped out of the bidding because of what it said was a "clear breach" of fairness in the process due to other bidders receiving confidential information.

In addition to OmniTRAX, Bornman was active in BC government relations as a registered lobbyist for the Employers Forum of BC, the Council of Forest Industries, the Western Canadian Shippers Coalition, the Broe Companies, Inc. (owners of OmniTRAX), the BC Real Estate Association, Famous Players, the Certified General Accountants Association of BC, and Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, according to the BC government's lobbyist Web site.

But Bornman’s lobbying career ended when police executed search warrants on December 28 at the BC Legislature and the homes and offices of some prominent Liberals in connection with an investigation into drug dealing, organized crime, and the BC Rail privatization deal.

Police searched the Legislature workspaces of Basi, ministerial assistant to then Finance Minister Gary Collins, and Virk, ministerial assistant to then Transportation Minister Judith Reid, and also searched Basi’s home in Victoria.

Another home searched was Bornman’s West End Vancouver apartment, where he ran the Vancouver operation of Pilothouse Public Affairs, the company he ran with former Vancouver Province newspaper columnist Brian Kieran and Jamie Elmhirst, the current president of the Liberal Party of Canada in BC.

[Pilothouse will be renamed K&E Public Affairs shortly, according to the Pilothouse website.]

Links to federal Liberals

Another police search came at the home office of Bruce Clark, another federal Liberal executive member in BC and the brother of former Deputy Premier Christy Clark.

The allegations against Basi and Virk directly involved Bornman and Clark. The search-warrant "information to obtain" or ITO released by police in September 2004 claimed that Bornman offered Basi and Virk a benefit -- help in obtaining $100,000-plus jobs with the federal Liberal government -- in exchange for obtaining confidential information about the BCRail deals.

Count three of the December 21, 2004 indictment against Basi alleges that he: "accepted from a person who has dealings with the government rewards, advantages and benefits being money, meals, travel and employment opportunities without having received consent in writing of the head of the branch of government of which he is an official, contrary to Section 121 (1) (c) of the Criminal Code." A similar allegation is made against Virk.

Bruce Clark, according the heavily-censored police ITO, was believed to be in possession of information obtained from Basi regarding the sale of BC Rail's Port Subdivision at Roberts Bank, another privatization deal worth between $70 million and $100 million. OmniTRAX was also a bidder for the Port Subdivision.

BC Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon cancelled the sale after the RCMP said an ongoing criminal investigation revealed that the process was tainted by "advisors" to a bidder obtaining confidential information.

The sworn ITO statement by Victoria RCMP Corporal Andrew Cowan states that: “I believe that Clark received documents pertaining to a Request for Proposal and presentations regarding Roberts Bank. I believe that Clark has had meetings with Basi and received these documents from Basi.”

Bruce Clark was returned to an executive position with the Liberal party of Canada in BCin charge of finance at the party's November 2004 convention.

[And in another strange twist, the Vancouver Sun’s Sean Holman reported in April that Cowan had personally purchased a house from David Basi’s mother and met Basi in 1999.]

Now a key witness

While Bornman was listed as a “person of interest” in the ITO, at an April 1 BC Supreme Court hearing, Basi’s defence lawyer Michael Bolton said that Bornman was now a key witness for the Crown against the two accused.

"He [Bornman] is a crown witness, yes. He's a key witness against the accused," Bolton told me in an interview for 24 hours newspaper.

When the trial finally takes place, the accused and their accuser will have much in common.

Prime Minister Paul Martin hired Bornman as an aide in Ottawa when Martin was finance minister, and along with Basi and Virk, he was a key Martin leadership-campaign operative in BC.

Until the Legislature raid, Bornman was a federal party executive member in BC.

Both Bornman and Basi worked closely with Paul Martin’s chief BC organizer Mark Marissen, the husband of former deputy premier Christy Clark. Bornman, Clark and Marissen were all Young Liberals in the early 1990s and were close supporters of former federal Environment Minister David Anderson; Bornman and Marissen both worked directly for Anderson at times.

Marissen was visited at his home by police after the Legislature raid but it was not the subject of a search warrant.

Bornman was also a strong Gordon Campbell BC Liberal, with Pilothouse's Web site stating that he has "over a decade of political experience" in the provincial and federal Liberal parties and has held senior roles "in numerous national and provincial election campaigns".

The Paul Martin sign-ups

An additional question concerns the rapid expansion of the federal Liberal Party membership in BC connected to the Paul Martin leadership campaign. There were just 4,000 Liberal members in February 2002 but that number rocketed to more than 37,000 by 2003, with most new members coming from the South Asian community. Adult membership in the party costs $10, meaning the Liberals collected more than $300,000 in dues.

Basi’s problems don’t stop with the bribery and influence peddling charges. He also faces separate charges of production and possession of marijuana for the purposes of trafficking after a Shawnigan Lake rental home he owns was the subject of another police raid.

Basi’s cousin Aneal Basi, a government communications officer who was also active with the federal Liberals, was fired in December 2004 after he was charged with two counts of laundering money allegedly received by David Basi.

David Basi’s lawyers have repeatedly said Basi is innocent of all charges.

There are still more interesting connections in this case. Victoria police officer Const. Ravinder Singh (Rob) Dosanjh has been charged with willfully attempting to obstruct justice after being suspended for a year in another link to the Legislature raid.

Dosanjh allegedly counselled his cousin, Mandeep Singh Sandhu, to make false statements about the origin of money seized during a police search of his residence in 2003. Sandhu and Dosanjh co-own a Victoria rental property.

David Basi organized the placement of Sandhu onto the federal Liberal Party executive in the riding of Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca in 2003 but Sandhu was removed after it was found he was not a party member. Sandhu’s home was also searched by police.

Case blanketed, no inquiry promised

The many strange connections and unanswered questions have prompted several media organizations to file applications to unseal additional search warrant information to obtain documents but have been unsuccessful.

Most recently Associate Chief Justice Patrick Dohm turned down requests from media lawyers to release additional information related in the case.

Globe and Mail newspaper lawyer Roger McConchie argued that given the information should be released before the May 17 provincial election because of “overwhelming public interest” but Dohm refused.

“The biggest political scandal in Canada may not lie in Quebec, where the Gomery inquiry is laying bare a tawdry tale of misdirected funds, but in British Columbia, where a conservative judiciary is suppressing information about alleged drug dealing, money laundering and influence peddling,” wrote Mark Hume in the April 25 edition of the Globe and Mail.

“Because of restrictive court orders that are keeping search warrants and other material secret, little has been made public [and] in BC voters are being sent to the polls before hearing any details and without any promise of a public inquiry,” Hume wrote.

Meanwhile, Bornman may be taking a professional as well as a personal interest in his upcoming testimony as a Crown witness against Basi and Virk. Despite his legal issues, Bornman is now a law student at the University of BC.

One thing is clear in this still mysterious case: Spiderman Bornman’s fascinating story is far from over.

Bill Tieleman writes a column on BC politics every Tuesday and Friday in 24 hours, the free weekday newspaper, and can be heard each Monday at 7:40 a.m. on CBC Radio’s Early Edition on AM 690. Email him at [email protected]  [Tyee]

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