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Luring Campbell to the Witness Stand

Virk lawyer's bold courtroom allegations are strategically designed to prompt the premier to testify. Will he bite?

Bill Tieleman 25 May

Bill Tieleman is a regular Tyee contributor who writes a column on B.C. politics every Tuesday in 24 Hours newspaper. E-mail him at [email protected] or visit his blog.

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After Leg raid, did premier talk to Virk?

"The only real lawyers are trial lawyers, and trial lawyers try cases to juries." -- Clarence Darrow, lawyer, 1857-1938

The jury trial of three former B.C. Liberal government aides facing corruption charges started last week with a defence lawyer's shocking allegation that Premier Gordon Campbell spoke with defendant Bob Virk before he was indicted but after police raided the B.C. Legislature.

Virk's lawyer Kevin McCullough went even further than that in cross-examining Campbell's chief of staff Martyn Brown. He also alleged Brown spoke with Virk and alleged that both Brown and the premier assured Virk his silence would be rewarded.

At the time Virk had been suspended with pay from his job as ministerial assistant to ex-transportation minister Judith Reid, while co-accused Dave Basi had been fired quickly from his job as ministerial assistant to then-finance minister Gary Collins right after the police raid for evidence on Dec. 28, 2003.

The Crown charged Basi and Virk with breach of trust and fraud for allegedly leaking confidential government documents about the $1 billion privatization sale of B.C. Rail to lobbyists representing one of the bidders in exchange for money and benefits. Aneal Basi, a former government communications aide, faces money laundering charges connected to alleged payments to his cousin Dave.

The disturbing allegations against Campbell and Brown, it must be stressed, were not supported by McCullough introducing any evidence.

But the combative veteran defence lawyer knew exactly what he was doing with Brown -- setting up a potential situation where Campbell himself could be called to testify in court.

Premier's lose-lose predicament

McCullough left Campbell with a lose-lose choice. He could agree to take the stand as a witness in order to dispel the allegation the premier had spoke to Virk and made promises after the raid, therefore becoming subject to rigorous questioning.

Or Campbell could let the unsubstantiated allegation go untested, leaving a politically damaging claim without a response in court.

Neither option could possibly appeal to the beleaguered Campbell, who is already battered by his planned July 1 Harmonized Sales Tax imposition that has generated an enormous negative reaction, with over 500,000 people signing the Fight HST citizens Initiative petition led by former B.C. premier Bill Vander Zalm, and a massive budget deficit that was six times larger than he claimed before the 2009 election.

Campbell is facing a 12 percentage point deficit in the latest Mustel Group poll, which shows the B.C. Liberals at just 32 per cent, the New Democrats at 44 per cent, the Green Party at 13 per cent and the B.C. Conservatives at 7 per cent.

And even though an exasperated trial judge Anne MacKenzie, associate chief justice of the B.C. Supreme Court, at one point instructed the jury during a McCullough argument to "ignore what he's saying" the lawyer is executing a strategy clearly designed to exonerate his client, potentially at Campbell and his party's expense.

Fierce courtroom combat

"Did you know that Premier Campbell was telling Virk that the [B.C.] Liberal Party would take care of him and he was to keep his mouth shut?" McCullough asked Brown.

"No," Brown answered.

"Are you sure about that evidence?" McCullough asked Brown, who has been Campbell's top political aide since before the 2001 provincial election when the B.C. Liberals came to power.

"I'm not in a position to comment on somebody else's actions but I would be shocked, completely shocked, if that was the case, because I don't believe it happened," Brown said.

Brown also strongly rejected an allegation by McCullough that he telephoned Virk monthly after the raid until December 2004, when Virk was charged and fired, or that he assured Virk that "he just needed to play the game."

"That is absolutely untrue," said Brown. "I never, ever, ever initiated a call with Bob Virk. And I never said anything along those lines."

McCullough also roasted Brown with allegations that political dirty tricks, including Dave Basi paying people $100 each to counter-protest a demonstration against fish farms and stacking radio talk shows with B.C. Liberal-friendly callers were orchestrated directly out of the premier's office.

McCullough alleged that Mike McDonald, a member of the premier's staff in 2003, organized the farmed salmon counter-protest with Basi.

Brown initially denied McDonald worked in Campbell’s office -- until McCullough showed Brown a document indeed listing McDonald as working for the premier on "outreach and special projects."

Brown admitted his error but said he would never sanction dirty tricks like the fish farm salmon demonstration.

"I can't imagine paying people to go to an event. It's not something I would do," Brown testified, adding later: "That's not who I am and it's not who the government is."

"I've worked in this business for 22 years; I've served under five leaders, three premiers. I'm told I'm the longest-serving chief of staff in the country. It's just not something I would do. It's rare in political life that any inappropriate conduct isn't outed," Brown said.

More than 40 witnesses

McDonald, also a former B .C. Liberal government caucus communications director, is married to Campbell's former senior deputy minister from 2005 to 2009, Jessica McDonald.

Jessica McDonald is not on the Crown's witness list but two other former deputy ministers to Campbell are -- Ken Dobell and Brenda Eaton.

If Brown's experience with a cross-examination that continues Tuesday is any evidence, neither Dobell nor Eaton nor ex-cabinet ministers and others can be looking forward to testifying.

But for political observers, this trial has already proven to be fascinating and captivating with the appearance of only the first of more than 40 witnesses.

NOTE: A publication ban prevents The Tyee and other media from posting information not presented before the jury in this trial, including the arguments and rulings in pre-trial court hearings.  [Tyee]

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