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Wiretap Said to Tie Collins to Media Tricks

Allegations pile up as legislature raid case unfolds.

Bill Tieleman 4 May

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 Tieleman can be heard every Monday at 10 a.m. on the Bill Good Show on CKNW AM 980 or at E-mail him at [email protected] or visit his blog at:

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Former BC Finance Minister Gary Collins.

B.C. Supreme Court has heard a litany of allegations since the long-awaited case of the Crown vs. Basi, Virk and Basi began April 18.

And Wednesday, May 2, saw some of the most dramatic allegations to date, including the defence citing wiretap evidence that former B.C. Liberal Finance Minister Gary Collins was directly involved in media manipulation and political dirty tricks.

Almost all of the information produced in the defence disclosure application to date can be assigned to one of five key areas:

  1. The alleged abuse of political power by key members of the B.C. Liberal government and the B.C. Liberal Party;
  2. The alleged political manipulation of the $1 billion privatization of BC Rail;
  3. The alleged pervasive influence of lobbyists on the B.C. Liberal government;
  4. The alleged connections between the B.C. legislature raid and powerful players in the B.C. Liberal party, the federal Liberal Party of Canada-BC branch and the Paul Martin leadership campaign;
  5. The alleged abuse of the power of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in this investigation.

And despite some media reports to the contrary, the mounting allegations add up to a case on its way to becoming a huge story with the potential to become a major political scandal.

The case exploded when police armed with search warrants carted materials out of the B.C. legislature and RCMP spokesperson ominously linked it to drug dealing, organized crime and corruption but in the years since then it has been regularly derided as minor and inconsequential, involving small-time, non-elected players in a trial that's been endlessly delayed.

As the allegations and evidence begin to pile up, however, it becomes clear this case touches everyone from former Liberal prime ministers Paul Martin and Jean Chretien to former RCMP Commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli to B.C. Liberal Premier Gordon Campbell. And its search beam is illuminating everything from one of the biggest privatization deals in Canadian history to paid media manipulation and paid dirty tricks to top cops related to top B.C. Liberal party officials to provincial lobbyists with deputy minister pals.

Watchers of the unfolding case would do well to recall what the legendary Deep Throat told Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward in the movie All The President's Men: "You tell me what you know, and I'll confirm. I'll keep you in the right direction if I can, but that's all. Just... follow the money."

Basi and Collins transcript

Wednesday's court proceedings in front of Justice Elizabeth Bennett provided an object lesson in why the charges of breach of trust and fraud against David Basi and his brother-in-law Bob Virk and a money laundering charge against Basi's cousin Aneal Basi are so important and explosive.

Dave Basi was once the most powerful ministerial assistant in Victoria, serving as then-finance minister Gary Collins' eyes and ears. Bob Virk was ministerial assistant to then-transportation minister Judith Reid, while Aneal Basi was a young communications aide in government.

Then Basi and Virk were charged with leaking confidential government documents on BC Rail to lobbyists representing OmniTRAX, one of the bidders for the then publicly-owned railroad, in exchange for money and benefits.

But on Wednesday it was clear that Dave Basi was much more than just a ministerial aide. He was perhaps the government's key political operative, as well as the top organizer in B.C. for the Paul Martin forces in the battle against Jean Chretien for control of the Liberal Party of Canada -- and the country.

Late in the day, Michael Bolton, the veteran lawyer who is defending David Basi, quietly set off multiple sticks of political dynamite by reading into the record a wiretapped cell phone conversation between Basi and Collins on October 31, 2003.

The call takes place less than a month before the BC Rail sale to CN Rail is announced and as opponents to the planned deal are mobilizing against the B.C. Liberal government.

The call allegedly captures the type of media manipulation and political dirty tricks that have already been headlined previously in this case but this time Gary Collins is directly involved.

The following is a transcript taken from notes from Bolton's statement in court and is slightly abbreviated:

Collins: Hello.

Basi: Hi boss. Judith Reid was on Ben Meisner [at the time, a Prince George radio talk show host] -- she handled herself real well. There was only one call and it was ours.

Collins: Good.

Basi: Bill Vander Zalm will be on [radio] with Barb Sharp -- mayor of North Vancouver. [former B.C. premier Vander Zalm and Sharp both opposed BC Rail privatization]

Collins: Uh-huh.

Basi: I wanted to have the mayor of Squamish, who's a good friend of ours, rip Barb Sharp a new asshole. Is that okay?

Collins: Absolutely.

Basi: I called Jerry Lampert of the [BC] Business Council and said: 'Jerry, we need your help.' The Prince George Citizen might take an op-ed [opinion editorial article] but they don't want only positive pieces.

Collins: Well, you could do that....I want you to keep this completely to yourself because there's only two of us who know about this."

Basi: Okay.

Collins: I talked to the Premier. We want to put Colin Kinsley [mayor of Prince George] and the mayor of Squamish on the committee.

Basi: I'm going to call Ian Sutherland [mayor of Squamish] at home.

Collins: Uh-huh.

Basi: Then we're going to arrange calls and rip these guys up good.

Collins: Okay but don't tell Sutherland because it's the Premier who's going to call.

It should be noted again that the wiretapped conversation cited by Bolton is part of the defence allegations, which are unproven in court and to which the Crown has yet to respond.

Former North Vancouver City Mayor Barb Sharp was stunned when I called her Wednesday evening to get her reaction to the alleged comments.

"It's quite a shocker. I don't know what they were so upset about with me except that I was trying to keep BC Rail in North Vancouver," Sharp said. "It's quite inappropriate to talk about anyone that way -- what a terrible way to talk about people."

Collins’ lawyer and spokesman retained by taxpayers??

Victoria lawyer Clark Roberts has been in B.C. Supreme Court every day since the defence disclosure application began, representing Gary Collins and speaking on his behalf on several occasions to rebut defence allegations.

But Roberts left the court without speaking to the three remaining media -- myself for 24 hours newspaper and The Tyee, Rob Brown for B.C. CTV and Mark Hume for the Globe and Mail newspaper -- after Bolton's statement.

But Roberts himself disclosed some other interesting details earlier in the day, including that his fees for attending court daily from Victoria may be paid by B.C. taxpayers.

"I'm here to protect Mr. Collins' reputation," Roberts told journalists at a break in the proceedings.

When I asked if Collins is personally retaining him at his own expense, Roberts allowed that he may in fact be paid by taxpayers.

"Mr. Collins asked me to act for him but who is paying the bill is not clear at this time. I understand Mr. Collins has an indemnification as a former cabinet minister."

Roberts' role was actually raised the previous day in court by Virk's lawyer Kevin McCullough, who presented most of the aggressive defence case till Wednesday afternoon.

"In the case of Mr. Collins, he has a lawyer here every day. As best I can read in the newspapers, he's speaking for Mr. Collins," McCullough told Justice Bennett in asking that any witnesses for the subsequent trial be banned from attending the disclosure hearing. McCullough also noted the presence of an RCMP officer who will be called to testify in the trial as one of the investigators.

"There will be a ban from here on in -- any witness cannot be in the courtroom," Bennett ordered immediately.

RCMP: failure to communicate?

The RCMP's role in the Basi-Virk investigation also took a beating from the defence in the past few days.

McCullough made sustained arguments he completed Wednesday that the RCMP has "tailored" its investigation in order to steer it away from elected politicians and towards Basi and Virk.

But nothing he did could have helped his case more than an unexpected phone call he received on Sunday, April 29, from a man named John Preissell.

Preissell, it turns out, had contacted RCMP in January 2005 to offer information he had about the role of provincial lobbyist Brian Kieran in the case. And after speaking to McCullough, Preissell made a surprise appearance in the courtroom Monday to give evidence.

Preissell told the court in sworn testimony as the case's unscheduled and first witness that the RCMP "didn't seem too interested" when he contacted them about Kieran, who is one of the Crown's key witnesses against the defendants.

McCullough found that amazing because first of all, special prosecutor Bill Berardino had never disclosed the Preissell tip to the defence.

And second, because Preissell testified under oath that Kieran had threatened him over a planned public campaign against Gary Collins about Insurance Corporation of B.C. issues. Collins was minister responsible then and Preissell at that time was owner of an auto body and glass repair shop having "red tape" trouble with ICBC.

"The bottom line was he [Kieran] threatened me repeatedly and said if we didn't back off of Mr. Collins we wouldn't get what we wanted," Preissell alleged. "I was actually afraid, I was very afraid."

Preissell said that at the time of the threat in the spring of 2003 he was a member of a group of the Auto Glass Survival Coalition and that another industry group he had been involved with had hired Kieran as a lobbyist.

"Kieran offered to work for the Coalition for free to embarrass ICBC but not to embarrass the minister of finance," Preissell testified.

When I contacted Kieran and read him Preissell's statement he declined comment. "As per the past three years, I've been advised by my attorney that I should wait until I'm in court to say my piece," said Kieran, a longtime Victoria political columnist for The Province newspaper before becoming a lobbyist.

Railroading and the RCMP

Preissell's surprise appearance was followed by another surprise appearance the next day. The Crown discovered extensive notes of the tip received by veteran RCMP Sergeant Bud Bishop. And Bishop himself showed up in court.

However by the time McCullough had read Bishop's notes, he was barely able to control his anger.

"You've been hearing me repeatedly talk about the failure of the Crown and the RCMP to disclose," he told Justice Bennett. "These are comprehensive notes about BC Rail. They're not just about Mr. Preissell. Sergeant Bishop's notes were never disclosed in any way, period."

"But for Mr. Preissell phoning us, we would never have pursued this at all," McCullough said heatedly. "The special prosecutor has not met his disclosure obligations whatsoever."

It then turned out that Bishop's notes were indeed a treasure trove of information that included references to other public tips and mention of current B.C. Liberal Forests Minister Rich Coleman and former B.C. Liberal Deputy Premier Christy Clark.

"These notes contain details of conversations Sergeant Bishop had with a Terry Fergusson," about BC Rail issues, McCullough continued. Fergusson, he said, "complained about a flawed process, that he complained to Christy Clark about, that he was talking to Mr. Virk about the very flawed processes that were going on."

"Four MLAs wrote Christy Clark [or] saw Coleman," McCullough read from Bishop's notes. "He left out that Mr. Fergusson was having dealings with Christy Clark and seeing Minister Coleman. That begins to tell you, milady, how the B.C. Liberal government is operating."

Christy Clark did not respond to a request to comment on statements attributed to Fergusson. It later turned out that Fergusson is executive director of the National Historical Railway Society, a group that sued BC Rail in 1998 over money it claimed was owed to it.

The missing notes didn't anger just McCullough. Justice Bennett had sharp words for the special prosecutor as well.

"You see the problem with this?" Bennett asked Janet Winteringham, assistant to special prosecutor Bill Berardino, who is absent from the hearing.

"Yes," Winteringham answered.

"As you probably know, I practiced criminal law for 15 years before moving to the bench 10 years ago. What you're telling me is troubling, that these disclosures are coming at this stage," Bennett concluded.

Spiderman trouble

But that was far from the last thing troubling the defence. McCullough launched into a multi-day attack on the conduct of the special prosecutor and RCMP in connection with their dealing with former provincial lobbyist Erik Bornmann, who is to be the star witness against Basi, Virk and Basi.

Bornmann was a controversial character long before the B.C. legislature raid took place. Nicknamed "Spiderman" after he entered a locked BC Liberal Party of Canada office through the ceiling, Bornmann was partners with Brian Kieran and former LPC BC president Jamie Elmhirst at Pilothouse Public Affairs.

Pilothouse was retained by BC Rail privatization bidder OmniTRAX to conduct government relations on its behalf and according to court documents, OmniTRAX spent nearly $300,000 on Pilothouse's services.

But when the final results of the BC Rail privatization were announced, OmniTRAX had lost out to CN Rail.

When the police executed search warrants on the B.C. legislature, they also searched the Pilothouse office and Bornmann's Vancouver home-office looking for evidence.

Soon afterwards the RCMP and the Special Prosecutor cut an immunity deal with Bornmann to testify against his former friends Basi and Virk, who had all worked together on the Paul Martin leadership campaign, McCullough outlined.

And it was that deal with Bornmann and the fact that the defence says it does not have any of the details about it, that troubles McCullough.

McCullough alleged that Bornmann and partner Kieran were both allowed to continue their lucrative lobbying business despite allegedly admitting to "bribing public officials" because of the deal.

He further alleged that Bornmann was also allowed to complete law school and begin articling at prestigious Toronto law firm McCarthy Tétrault despite his involvement in the BC Rail charges because of the special deal.


McCullough said it was "unfathomable" that a lengthy statement Bornmann gave investigators in February 2005 was not disclosed to the defence.

"The Bornmann statement deals exclusively with Mr. Virk and Mr. Basi and Aneal Basi. It is to do with BC Rail and it is to do with the payments," McCullough said.

"Bornmann was not a bit player but the key player, a witness whose credibility was sullied from the get go and we don't get a statement from him," McCullough complained.

McCullough continued by alleging Bornmann was an unreliable witness who made false accusations against another likely Crown witness, Bruce Clark, brother of Christy Clark and an executive member of the Liberal Party of Canada BC.

"Bornmann provided statements regarding another potential witness. Mr. Bornmann alleged Mr. Clark bribed Mr. Basi," McCullough alleged. "A purported payment to Basi from Clark regarding Pacific Western Brewery -- Erik Bornmann stated Clark paid Basi for the information."

"Mr. Bornmann may have made one too many statements," McCullough continued. "Now the defence can rebut that statement. We understand that the allegation is not only untrue but it unfortunately compromised the good name of another. There's an indication he's making it up as he goes along."

"How did the police follow that up? Whether Mr. Bornmann was simply making false allegations in respect to Mr. Clark and Mr. Basi?" McCullough asked.

[Bruce Clark has previously told the Globe and Mail that he has already been investigated and cleared by police in that matter.]

Allegations and accusations

And so it goes in courtroom 54 as the allegations and accusations pile up.

What's sometimes stunning to remember given the number of revelations is that this is merely the preliminary defence disclosure application.

The defence will make a Charter of Rights application once this stage is complete and then, unless Justice Bennett halts the case altogether, the trial itself will begin and run for at least six months.

That means many if not all of the allegations to date will return to the courtroom but this time with witnesses called, cross-examination and evidence entered -- evidence that can be examined by journalists and the public.

During the current disclosure application stage, no evidence has been presented for the media or spectators in the public gallery to review.

But that hasn't stopped the defence from using the B.C. legislature raid case to give British Columbians its angle of view on the machinations of political power and the intersection of money, influence and government, even if only through allegations unproven in court.

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