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Ho Hum, Criminal Charges for Liberal Aides

These indictments allege corruption of major government deals. So why the big yawn?

By Barbara McLintock 24 Dec 2004 | TheTyee.ca

Barbara McLintock, a regular contributor to The Tyee, is a freelance writer and consultant based in Victoria and author of Anorexia’s Fallen Angel.

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Maybe it's too much Enron, and WorldCom, and Martha Stewart. Maybe it's too much Sponsorship Scandal emanating from a federal government that won re-election earlier this year, despite the obvious evidence of malfeasance in conjunction with some of its programs. Maybe it's just that it's the week before Christmas when the media are wont to leave their natural cynicism behind and run warm, fuzzy stories about the many citizens who are helping make their community a better place to live. 

And good on them, I say. But all the same, when three political appointees are faced with criminal charges pretty well unheard of in the province, the reaction should still perhaps be more than a polite yawn. The lack of outrage, both in the media and, it would seem in the B.C. public, over the accusations against Dave Basi, Bobby Virk and Aneal Basi is somewhat remarkable.

One can only hope that the disinterested shrugs from the citizenry do not mean that a significant number of British Columbians have come to accept that bribery, corruption and money-laundering are just part of the way business is too-often carried out in British Columbia – as if we were some third-rate banana republic somewhere. It wouldn't be too hard a conclusion to reach, given that premiers in B.C.'s last two governments both ended up facing criminal charges (even though neither Bill Vander Zalm or Glen Clark was, in the end, convicted). After all, these three folks charged this week aren't even elected members of the legislature.

But as those who have worked in government know all too well, the behind-the-scenes workers can often have an influence on policy as great, or greater, than that of MLAs or MPs or even cabinet ministers. And from the wording of the charges, it would appear that the Basi, Virk and Basi might have had a significant amount of influence on the deal to sell B.C. Rail.

Privatization push corrupted?

It must be reiterated again that none of the three have yet been convicted of anything. Like all Canadian citizens, they must be considered innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. But whether that happens or not, any trial proceedings are not at all likely to occur before the next provincial election next May. Any voters who want to take into consideration the possible corruption of one of the Liberals' major privatization deals when they go to the polls will have to do so on the basis of the material that is currently available.

That material, in the form of the actual charges laid out in the Information, implies that the problems with the B.C. Rail deal may go a great deal deeper than had previously been suspected. From the time the potential difficulties became obvious, shortly after the search warrant was executed on the offices of Dave Basi and Bobby Virk last Dec. 28, the Liberals have insisted that nothing that occurred tainted the deal. The only problematic part, they argued, was the separate sale of the line running to the Point Roberts superport – and the government cancelled that part of the deal once cabinet realized the potential issues.

But that isn't what the criminal charges state. They never mention the separate spur line agreement at all. They say that the exchange of favours that is at the heart of the case involve unspecified matters of government business "including a bid by OmniTRAX to obtain the operating rights of B.C. Rail from the Government of British Columbia." That sounds much more like the deal for the whole railway, even though OmniTRAX did not end up being the successful bidder for those operating rights. (CN Rail was the winning bidder.)

Introducing Aneal Basi

The charges also make clear for the first time that more was involved than just the efforts by Dave Basi and Bobby Virk to get for themselves good jobs in the Paul Martin government (home of the sponsorship scandal, remember?) by using influence that they had or pretended they had on the BC Rail deal and other provincial decisions. The charges in fact allege specifically that Basi and Virk demanded and/or agreed to accept as well "money, meals and transportation." This is the first mention of cold, hard cash – and it's apparently where Aneal Basi comes into the picture.

Aneal Basi is Dave Basi's cousin and he has worked for the Campbell government for about three years. He is only just 24, and his previous claim to fame was as an exceptionally good field hockey player who made the Canadian national team. He was, until taking a leave of absence a couple of months ago, working as a "public information officer" in the transport ministry – the main home of the B.C. Rail deal. Although it might sound like one, this was not a civil service job. He was a political appointee, given the post through a cabinet order back in 2002. Indeed, the first mention of his name in connection with anything political occurs in March 2001 (just before the election) when he was introduced in the legislature by ex-finance minister Gary Collins as an enthusiastic Young Liberal. Collins, who quit cabinet and caucus just a week ago to become head of Harmony Airways, was also the person who handpicked Dave Basi, another enthusiastic Young Liberal, to be his chief ministerial assistant when he was given the finance minister's job in 2001.

Aneal's name had never surfaced publicly before during the year-long investigation. And the charges against him are particularly interesting. He faces two counts, both of money laundering. In essence, he is charged with helping Dave Basi to commit the offences of fraud and breach of trust, by laundering the money that he took. All of which begs those two key questions of: where did the money come from in the first place? And just how was Aneal Basi able to hide and launder it? But no matter what the answers are to those questions, the implication is clear: money actually did change hands, because there was money that needed to be laundered

Who allegedly bought influence?

That leads to the other interesting question: just who are the persons on the other side of these clandestine handshakes, and why do their names not appear in the criminal charges, even as other potential accused? If Dave Basi was accepting money in return for using, or promising to use, his influence on provincial matters, someone must have been giving him that money. It would not be a huge leap to draw the conclusion that that someone must have known that they were also complicit in any criminal offence that was being committed. Yet no other names appear on the charges.

Meanwhile, with Collins having taken his abrupt departure from government, the remainder of cabinet is left to defend the B.C. Rail sale as best it can. Cabinet ministers have pointed out that the "fairness commissioner" appointed to oversee the sale has given the deal a clean bill of health. But it is obvious that the fairness commissioner could make a ruling only on the basis of what he could see – and he certainly didn't see Mr. Basi or Mr. Virk engaging in side deals that may now be seen as criminal, nor an information officer from the transportation minister possibly laundering money.

Solicitor General Rich Coleman, who's probably the best member of cabinet at ensuring that he always leaves himself a back door for escape if necessary, noted that the B.C. Rail sale deal still appeared sound "on the basis of what I know."

But that's the ultimate question. Will it still appear sound once we all know a great deal more through the trial proceedings? Or will it look like B.C. is just a government version of an Enron company?

Barbara McLintock is the Victoria-based contributing editor to The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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