Recover costs from guilty staff, B.C. told

The B.C. government should try to recover legal fees paid on behalf of employees found guilty of crimes, a review recommends.

VICTORIA – The B.C. government should try to recover legal fees paid on behalf of employees found guilty of crimes related to their employment, according to an outside review of the policy released Thursday.

University of B.C. president Stephen Toope was appointed in May to review the province’s policy of covering legal fees for public servants who are sued or charged in connection with their duties. Toope concluded that there are valid reasons to protect accused employees, but if they are found guilty, action to recover costs should be automatic.

The review was sparked by a $6 million payout to settle legal fees for ministerial assistants Dave Basi and Bobby Virk, who abruptly pleaded guilty this spring to taking bribes in connection with the sale of BC Rail operations in 2002. Their prosecution stretched out for seven years, mostly due to wrangling over defence demands for disclosure of thousands of government documents.

Toope was not asked to review the payout in the Basi-Virk case, which is being investigated by B.C. Auditor-General John Doyle. The existing policy leans heavily on the discretion of bureaucrats, and was added to over the years in response to specific cases.

The first time defence costs were paid in a B.C. criminal case was when former premier Glen Clark was charged with breach of trust involving a casino licence granted to a neighbour. Clark was acquitted.

Two deputy ministers reviewed the Basi-Virk case and concluded the accused had nowhere near the assets to cover their legal bills. So the province paid the bills and didn’t try to recover the cost.

Attorney General Shirley Bond promised Thursday that the government will take away the discretion to make that choice in future cases. New regulations will specify cost recovery from those convicted, but the government will still use “common sense” to weigh the costs and benefits of legal action, Bond said.

NDP attorney general critic Leonard Krog said the government ordered Toope’s report to deflect attention away from the Basi-Virk case, which was settled just as it was to begin calling witnesses.

Toope examined the 95 cases since 1999 where legal fees were covered by the province. Most were lawsuits involving public servants, and the average cost was $27,000.

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