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B.C. limits legal-fee deals for staffers in trouble

Nov 11 2011

The B.C. government will no longer cut deals to cover the legal costs of civil servants who are guilty of crimes, under changes accepted by the province Thursday.

Attorney General Shirley Bond said she'll remove the "discretion" for government staff to negotiate the payment of legal fees for an employee who pleads guilty, or is found guilty, of a crime.

"The principle and policy we're accepting today is that we will consider the pursuit of the recovery of assets, that will be the bottom line," said Bond.

The change, part of an independent review of legal indemnities released Thursday, comes in the wake of public outrage that taxpayers paid $6 million in defence fees last year for former political aides

Dave Basi and Bobby Virk, even though they pleaded guilty to corruption charges related to the sale of B.C. Rail.

It should be mandatory for government to recover legal fees from employees when those employees are found guilty — or plead guilty — to crimes in court, according to a review released Thursday by University of British Columbia president Stephen Toope.

But Toope also legitimized the government's current indemnity process, which picks up the tab to defend civil servants who face criminal or civil allegations during the ordinary course of their public duties.

"We want public servants not to be afraid they could be subject to litigation in making important decisions," said Toope, who was asked in May to look into the issue.

It is "not wise" for government to try to assess whether a person is guilty at the beginning of court proceedings as part of a decision on whether to fund their defence, he said.

"The presumption of innocence should be very strong in the context of indemnification," Toope said.

Bond said the government will accept all of Toope's recommendations, which largely include clarifying existing rules that were never formally approved by cabinet.

In order to recover as much of the legal fees as possible, the government will seek to attach security to employees' assets at the beginning of the legal process, Bond said in an emailed statement.

However, the changes won't prevent taxpayers from potentially being left with the tab when a guilty employee can't repay the government for defence fees, Toope said.

"There could still be circumstances where taxpayers are still on the hook," Toope said, "But I want

to be clear that is an extremely unusual

circumstance, and in my recommendations, I am at least ensuring that when there's money to be gained back by government, that government should indeed do that."

Even if the government didn't have an indemnity policy for employees, it's likely taxpayers would still have to pay costs in complex criminal trials because of the government's obligation to fund fair and equal access to justice, Toope said.

There have been 95 indemnity deals for government employees since 1999, with an average cost of $27,000 per case and a total bill of roughly

$11.4 million.

NDP attorney general critic Leonard Krog said Toope's report doesn't shed any light on the "outrageous" $6-million Basi-Virk plea deal.

He said the Liberals continue to "hide the truth" on B.C. Rail and that the public is no further ahead in understanding who negotiated the plea deal and why it was approved by lawyers and bureaucrats.

B.C.'s auditor general is also examining government indemnities, and Basi-Virk legal costs, in a report expected to be completed by the end of the year.

rshaw@timescolonist.com

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