An investigation by B.C.'s Conflict of Interest Commissioner has concluded that former agriculture minister Pat Pimm did not improperly try to influence or obtain confidential information from the Agricultural Land Commission.
But while clearing Mr. Pimm, the decision Thursday also makes clear that Richard Bullock, chair of the ALC, was "shocked" that the Liberal MLA appeared to be pressuring him over an Agricultural Land Reserve application.
The inquiry by Conflict Commissioner Paul Fraser focused on an application made by Terry McLeod, a constituent of Mr. Pimm's, who wanted to get land out of the ALR in Fort St. John so he could build rodeo grounds.
Mr. Pimm, who resigned as minister for health reasons last April, had attended a May, 2013, on-site meeting between Mr. McLeod and the ALC to show his support for the rodeo proposal. Mr. Pimm was an MLA at the time, but became minister shortly thereafter. After he became minister, his staff contacted Mr. Bullock asking about the McLeod decision before it had been released.
The ALC operates at arms-length from government and, after rejecting the application by Mr. McLeod, it published a note advising elected officials not to try to improperly influence ALC deliberations.
Feeling his ethics had been called into question by the ALC and subsequent media attention, Mr. Pimm asked Mr. Fraser to investigate.
In his decision, Mr. Fraser said Mr. Pimm had not acted improperly, but he was critical of ministerial staff for the "ambiguous language" used in an e-mail exchange that left Mr. Bullock feeling the minister was trying to get advance knowledge of the decision.
"The ALC's speculation that Mr. Pimm's involvement as an MLA created potential 'ethical difficulties' was quite undeserved in light of all the information I have been given," Mr. Fraser concluded. "I am satisfied that Mr. Pimm as a minister did nothing himself and gave no instruction to others to do anything that amounted to a personal representation for a constituent or a breach of the Act."
But a partial transcript of Mr. Fraser's interview of Mr. Bullock shows the chair of the ALC felt he was inappropriately pressured by Mr. Pimm. Mr. Bullock told Mr. Fraser he thought it "extremely unusual" when both Mr. Pimm and the mayor of Fort St. John showed up unannounced at the ALC's meeting with Mr. McLeod.
Mr. Fraser asked Mr. Bullock if he had raised his concerns at the time.
"No," Mr. Bullock replied. "In hindsight, what I should have done is packed my group back into the car and gone; that's what I should have done … but I didn't and that's my problem." Asked what Mr. Pimm's presence suggested to him, Mr. Bullock replied: "How do I put it in the vernacular: The heat was on. This is pulling out the heavies."
Later, staff in the deputy minister's office sent an e-mail to Mr. Bullock saying the minister "is looking for some info on this situation."
Mr. Bullock replied that the decision was made and "I anticipate we will be able to communicate the outcome in a couple of weeks."
A ministerial assistant fired back: "Thanks MPP [Minister Pat Pimm] would like to know the outcome."
Mr. Bullock testified he felt the e-mails were an "inappropriate" attempt by the minister to get the decision in advance. "He wanted to know the outcome now … I may be a dummy, but that's the way I [took] it," Mr. Bullock said.
Mr. Fraser, however, concluded vague e-mail wording created a misunderstanding and that Mr. Pimm's staff had merely wanted the decision when it was released.