A lawyer employed by the British Columbia government is fighting to keep former cabinet minister Rich Coleman from having to testify in a court case underway in Nanaimo.
In a Jan. 24 letter on government letterhead, lawyer Darcie Suntjens argued that a sitting MLA can’t be compelled to appear in court while the legislature is in session. Suntjens cites parliamentary privilege, a form of legal protection intended to allow elected officials to fulfil their duties.
The legislature stopped sitting at the end of November and isn’t scheduled to resume sitting until Feb. 12. Coleman, a Liberal MLA, sits in opposition.
But Suntjens said in her letter that while the legislature is adjourned, it is still technically in session and therefore Coleman can’t be compelled to testify, even if he is available.
A source familiar with the case said the government is making its argument to shield Coleman based on a technicality and that it would be in the public interest to hear what the former minister has to say.
The suit filed in the B.C. Supreme Court alleges that the defendants — TimberWest Forest Corp., two associated companies and three senior TimberWest officials, including former CEO Paul McElligott — deliberately drove Ted LeRoy Trucking Ltd., a major contractor for TimberWest, into bankruptcy. The case alleges TimberWest wanted to get out of contracts with the company.
The plaintiffs want Coleman to testify because documents suggest he helped TimberWest, which was then publicly traded and having financial trouble, find a buyer. At the time Coleman was the province’s forest minister. TimberWest’s donations to the BC Liberals included $44,685 in 2007, $14,738 in 2008 and $60,988 in 2009.
“Have a green light,” Coleman wrote to then TimberWest CEO McElligott in a May 8, 2008, email. “Need to meet on implementation. Made the sale, not sure they understand what they bought but they did. The roll out will be critical. Also have a reluctant partner in the east. They will play when pushed.”
TimberWest was eventually sold to two funds that manage pension money for public sector employees.
One was the B.C. Investment Management Corp., a provincial government agency that manages $136 billion for some 569,000 current and former public sector employees, according to its website. Now known as BCI, it is supposed to operate free from political interference.
The other buyer was the Public Sector Pension Investment Board, now known as PSP Investments, which manages pension money for members of the federal public service, the RCMP and the Canadian Armed Forces.
Dwight Harbottle, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs, was unavailable for an interview.
But responding to Suntjens in a Jan. 29 letter, Harbottle said the purpose of parliamentary privilege is to protect an MLA from being taken away from the legislature while it is sitting. Since the house is adjourned, Coleman should be available and expected to show up in court, he said.
Harbottle wrote that Coleman has information relevant to the case and that his testimony should take about an hour. He said they’d be willing to accommodate a time that fits Coleman’s schedule during the week of Feb. 4 or Feb. 11.
A spokesperson for the attorney general said the government is unable to comment on the matter.
Nor would they clarify whether Suntjens is acting on behalf of Coleman or the government.
In June, over objections from provincial government lawyer Suntjens, a judge
The trial began Jan. 22 and is scheduled for 40 days in court.
Read more: BC Politics