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New ringmaster, same circus as BC Rail trial resumes

gmason@globeandmail.com

When the corruption trial involving former aides in the B.C. government resumes next week, there will be a new judge sitting at the head of the courtroom.

Madam Justice Anne MacKenzie of the B.C. Supreme Court takes over a case that may soon be dealing with potentially explosive allegations - ones that could have serious repercussions for certain members of the provincial government.

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The case stems from the now-infamous raid on the B.C. Legislature in December, 2003. The RCMP seized the records of two political aides, Dave Basi and Bob Virk, whom the police believed were leaking sensitive government information in exchange for cash and other gifts.

In particular, the pair was supposed to have handed over information to the principals of a lobbying firm known as Pilothouse, which was representing the U.S. rail company OmniTrax. OmniTrax was a bidder in the sale of BC Rail, which was eventually sold to Canadian National.

The accused have maintained that to the extent they passed along any information to the representatives of one of the bidders, it was done with the consent and knowledge of their political masters. But beyond that, defence lawyers have suggested that officials at Pilothouse were getting inside information on the bid process from members of government, not low-level political aides.

And this is where things could get interesting as Judge MacKenzie takes over the nearly five-year-old case from Madam Justice Elizabeth Bennett, who was recently promoted to the Appeal Court of B.C. The case is still mired in pretrial motions and is not scheduled to move to full trial until some time late next year.

So who might have something to be worried about?

The court now has a document that suggests Pilothouse officials received detailed information about the BC Rail sale from a cabinet meeting, which was not attended by Mr. Basi or Mr. Virk. We may soon learn the identity of the cabinet minister suspected to be the source of that information.

Another person who may be concerned is Pat Bell, the current Minister of Forests and MLA from the riding of Prince George North. At the time of the government sale of BC Rail, there was fierce opposition to the plan centred in and around the Prince George area. Residents and businesses did not want the government to give up control of a rail line upon which they depended each day.

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Mr. Bell, I'm told, once had a bullet mailed to him by one irate resident with a note that read: "The next one has your name on it."

Even though he was not a member of cabinet at the time, Mr. Bell was under pressure from political supporters to oppose the sale. As deputy whip, however, he did have access to more insider information about the sale than most backbenchers. And he was been lobbied hard by officials from Pilothouse to support OmniTrax's bid over CN's.

According to a source, the court apparently has memos and billing records showing that Mr. Bell was in regular contact during the bid process with principals at Pilothouse, namely Brian Kieran. We do not know what information, if any, about the sale of BC Rail was exchanged.

Beyond Mr. Bell, the name of Blair Lekstrom, Minister of Petroleum Resources and MLA from Peace River South, is also likely to surface during pretrial hearings. He also hails from a part of B.C. that was adamantly opposed to the BC Rail sale and there is apparently similar evidence that he, too, was talking to Pilothouse officials about the sale of BC Rail.

And finally there is the matter of Liberal insider Patrick Kinsella and the role he might have played behind the scenes in the sale of BC Rail.

The defence has alleged that Mr. Kinsella, a former close friend of Mr. Campbell, was working as a political consultant and strategist for BC Rail - the seller- and CN, the eventual winner of the bid. While BC Rail officials have confirmed that Mr. Kinsella was working for them during the time of the sale, CN and Mr. Kinsella have remained silent with regards to the allegation he was working for the national rail company at the time too.

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The previous judge in the case rejected a defence application to gain access to Mr. Kinsella's private records and e-mails at the time of the sale, saying she couldn't grant the request because there was no proof that he was working for BC Rail and CN at the same time. If that were proven, the judge said, she could see granting the order.

Apparently, there are former government officials willing to testify that Mr. Kinsella was working for CN Rail at the same time he was working for BC Rail.

None of this is good news for a government as low in the polls as its been since taking office eight years ago.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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