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Liberal Minister Cleared of Wrongdoing in Land Reserve Case

Pat Pimm's support of move to turn farmland into a rodeo not inappropriate, conflict commissioner finds.

By Andrew MacLeod 5 Sep 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative bureau chief in Victoria. Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

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Former agricultural minister Pat Pimm's overt support for the conversion of protected farmland 'amounted to general enthusiasm for the rodeo project which he saw as a benefit to his community,' the commissioner found.

The conflict of interest commissioner for British Columbia, Paul Fraser, has found that Pat Pimm did nothing wrong, even though representatives of the Agricultural Land Commission felt that as an MLA and as agriculture minister he was trying to inappropriately influence one of their decisions.

The 44-page opinion, written and released at Pimm's request, involves the 2013 reconsideration of a failed application by Terry McLeod to have the ALC designate 70 hectares of protected farmland near Fort St. John "non-farm use" so it could be used as a rodeo facility with indoor arenas, a campsite, chuck wagon track, restaurant and offices.

On May 28, 2013, after the BC Liberals had been re-elected but before he was appointed agriculture minister, Pimm was present at McLeod's farm while representatives of the ALC, including chair Richard Bullock, were visiting to review the application.

"The representations he made amounted to general enthusiasm for the rodeo project which he saw as a benefit to his community," found Fraser. "The making of such representations, while irrelevant in terms of the statutory test for reconsideration, did not amount to improper activity... It is also my view that the ALC's speculation that Mr. Pimm's involvement as an MLA created potential 'ethical difficulties' was quite undeserved in light of all the information I have been given."

On June 7, 2013, Premier Christy Clark announced her new cabinet, which included Pimm as agriculture minister.

The opinion mentions, but gives little consideration, to an email Pimm's constituency assistant sent to the ALC on June 6, one day before the cabinet announcement. It said, "MLA Pimm has asked that I contact you on behalf of and in support of Terry McLeod and his application for Non-Farm use of land in the ALR."

Ambiguous email

In late July, staff in Pimm's office communicated via the deputy minister's office to the ALC that he wanted to know the outcome of the McLeod decision, but Fraser found representatives of the ALC read more into the emails than was there.

"With respect to the events that occurred after Mr. Pimm had been appointed as Minister of Agriculture, it is my opinion that what was perceived by the ALC to be ministerial interference and/or an attempt to improperly obtain information was neither of those things," wrote Fraser.

"The July 25 and 26, 2013 email communications amount to a series of regrettable misinterpretations resulting from ambiguous language. Similarly, the unclear voicemail message left by ministry staff on Nov. 13, 2013, made without the minister's knowledge, had the unintended effect of being interpreted by the ALC as an attempt to influence its enforcement actions."

Fraser concluded, "After giving this matter the very best consideration I can, I am satisfied that Mr. Pimm as a minister did nothing himself and gave no instructions to others to do anything that amounted to a personal representation for a constituent or a breach of the Act."

But it is clear from Fraser's report that the ALC had concerns. Following is Fraser's exchange with Bullock regarding the May 28 site visit, as quoted in the opinion:

Fraser: "From your perspective, what did the presence of Mr. Pimm mean?"

Bullock: "It was further -- how do I put it in the vernacular: the heat was on. This is pulling out the heavies. I have not -- again, this is something quite unusual to have an MLA come out. We did our job. We were there to listen to the applicant. We were doing that and I found it quite unusual. In fact, I found it -- I was shocked, frankly."

Fraser: "Do you mind telling me what you mean by that?"

Bullock: "Well, you know, again, this is -- in my tenure, I cannot say anything before, this is the first time I have seen this happen. I have had discussions with MLAs and I have had discussions with cabinet ministers but I have never had either one get involved directly in an application process."

Following is the exchange between Fraser and Bullock regarding the July emails that said then minister Pimm wanted to know the outcome of the McLeod reconsideration:

Fraser: "There isn't any temporal qualification to when the minister wants to know the outcome?"

Bullock: "I would think -- I took it and I think we took it that he wanted to know the outcome now."

Fraser: "Was that communicated to anybody along the line?"

Bullock: "That's just the way I read it."

Fraser: "Okay. Mister --"

Bullock: "Then we wrote back. I may be a dummy, but that's the way I take it."

Fraser: "I'm not accusing you of being a dummy, sir, at all."

Bullock: "I hear you, but it's pretty plain."

Fraser: "There isn't any qualification to when he wants to hear it. There isn't any obvious and expressed request that he get it before the decision is released, is there?"

Bullock: "Well, I think we have said that the application was reviewed by the Commission last week; paperwork regarding the review is being drafted; I anticipate we will be able to communicate the outcome in couple of weeks, full stop. Then the emails keep coming at us: 'Thanks, [the minister] would like to know the outcome.' And that means to me he didn't like our answer. We passed it along and there you go; I mean, it's pretty clear."

Fraser: "Well, it's clear to you anyway?"

Bullock: "Well, it's clear to me and I think it would be clear to most people, in my opinion and we like -- and it has been our policy over the years -- to get back as quick as we can when a minister asks a question and give him an answer and we gave the answer and there was a question that came back; we want to know the outcome and just because he didn't say 'now' we anticipated he wanted to say 'now.'"

According to Fraser, the ALC soon become "fully invested" in its interpretation that Pimm was seeking "an inappropriate and early advantage about the fate of the reconsideration application."

Fraser, with assurance from the staff involved in the minister and deputy's offices, decided the ALC representatives were wrong about Pimm's intention. "In analyzing the ALC's interpretation of the email conversation, one is left to wonder (parenthetically) what practical good it would have been for the minister to get prior notice of its decision? What could the minister do with such information that would benefit either his constituent or himself, without incurring impossible and intolerable risks of improper disclosure? On that purely expedient basis alone, the interpretation reached by the ALC is most unlikely."

It was really a misunderstanding, he found: "The regret in all of this is that the language used was ambiguous -- when it should not have been... What appears to have happened is simply a series of unfortunate communications resulting from this ambiguous language."

The two staff members said under oath that they simply wanted to know about the timing of the decision and that they wanted to be informed on the outcome once it was available, Fraser said.

The email from the deputy's office to the ALC had in part said, "Minister would like to know outcome," which had the ALC citing its policy and a legal opinion: "While I understand that the minister may be interested in the outcome of the Reconsideration Decision, it would be inappropriate for the Commission to release any information regarding its decision prior to the decision being released to the parties (in this case, the applicant)."

The ALC's July 2013 policy statement said, "Any perception of attempted direct political influence over adjudicative decision-making undermines the confidence that parties and the public are entitled to have in the administration of justice delivered by courts and administrative tribunals."

'Necessary changes'

Fraser's report said he asked Pimm if the government was seeking a sneak preview of the decision, to which Pimm said, "No. We just wanted to know what -- when it was sent out that we would -- we would be made aware of what that decision was."

The ministerial assistant told Fraser they weren't asking for decision ahead of McLeod, just to be in the loop. "Did the minister at any point in time in this entire scenario ever ask you to take steps to get any kind of special favour, privilege or benefit from the ALC with respect to McLeod's application?" Fraser asked, to which the assistant responded "Never."

Fraser's general guidance to MLAs is that its okay to represent their constituents during the information gathering phase of decision-making processes like the one overseen by the ALC, but not during the deliberation phase.

The ALC decided against McLeod in the reconsideration of his application, and in its decision called the involvement of Pimm and Fort St. John mayor Lori Ackerman inappropriate.

Fraser also provided some of the wider context for why the ALC might see Pimm as a foe.

"Before his appointment, it was well known to the ALC that Mr. Pimm had been a vocal advocate for change with respect to the ALR and the operations of the ALC," he wrote. "Half of the land province-wide in the ALR is located in the north and more than one half of that land is located in the northeast part of what was then the northern region of the ALR -- where Mr. Pimm's Fort St. John constituency is located. In this context, his appointment as Minister of Agriculture was obviously significant."

Pimm's mandate from Clark included making any "necessary changes" to the ALR. Through the core review process, the government came up with a plan to divide the ALR into two zones, with considerations other than protecting farmland to be given greater weight in the North, Interior and Kootenay regions. Many observers saw the changes as an attack on the protection of farmland, and Bullock recommended against making them.

Pimm went on sick leave in January for colon cancer treatment. The ALR changes were introduced in the legislature on March 27 this year and passed on May 29. Due to health reasons, Pimm resigned as minister between those dates on April 11.  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics

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