Commentary: Commissioner’s opinion on Pimm misses mark by country mile

by Dermod Travis,

 

In a 40-page opinion released last week, B.C. Conflict of Interest Commissioner Paul Fraser pretty well cleared former Agriculture Minister Pat Pimm of any wrongdoing with respect to his obligations under the Members’ Conflict of Interest Act, despite the odd ‘tsk, tsk’ here and there.

Pimm had requested the opinion following concerns over his alleged interference in a file before the Agricultural Land Commission last year related to a property in Fort St. John.

Ironically, in reading the opinion, it seems as though Fraser conducted his investigation from the perspective that Agricultural Land Commission chair Richard Bullock was the subject of it and not Pimm.

Consider this question posed to Bullock by the Commissioner: “Was all of that general conversation, conversation you thought was part of the conspiracy somehow to come down on you and show his (Pimm’s) influence?”

Now contrast that with a question posed to Pimm: “But your focus seemed to be on the basis of what would be good for the community, relative to the use of this property and the value that it would bring to the community and to the, if you like, the enjoyment or the cultural enhancement of the community; is that fair?

Astoundingly, Pimm responded: “That’s exactly accurate, yes.”

Much was made in the Commissioner’s report of a site visit to the Fort St. John property by the ALC in May 2013 and the appropriateness – or lack thereof – of Mr. Pimm’s presence at that visit. Fraser described it as “pivotal” in the events leading up to Pimm’s request for an opinion from his office.

According to the testimony the Commissioner heard, pleasantries were exchanged between Bullock and Pimm, there was some discussions about hockey and developments regarding Site “C.” It was – in the words of the Commissioner – “cordial in tone.”

What exactly did the Commissioner expect Bullock to do upon seeing Pimm? Throw a hissy fit in public? The more critical issue for the Commissioner should have been: what did the ALC do next?

And in that regard the ALC was proactive and resolute, preparing a policy statement on the role of elected officials in applications to the ALC that was circulated and posted to the Commission’s website.

In that statement, the Commission noted: “Elected officials at the provincial and local level have been given specific channels within the ALCA to influence decisions on applications to the ALC. Outside of those channels, they should not attempt to influence the ALC with regard to the outcome of a particular application…” No ambiguity there.

Notably, missing from Commissioner Fraser’s entire 40-page opinion is one phrase: “ministerial responsibility.”

According to the parliamentary doctrine, “Ministers are individually responsible for their own actions and those of their department, including the actions of all officials under their management and direction, whether or not the Ministers had prior knowledge. In practice, when errors or wrongdoings are committed by officials under their direction, Ministers are responsible for promptly taking the necessary remedial steps and for providing assurances that appropriate corrective action has been taken to prevent reoccurrence.”

It’s why – just a few months prior to that “pivotal” site visit – Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan resigned from federal cabinet after a review of his constituency office’s correspondence revealed he had written a character reference on behalf of a constituent to the Tax Court of Canada two years earlier.

That review had been prompted by revelations that then Finance Minister Jim Flaherty had written the CRTC in 2012 on behalf of a radio licensee applicant, a letter that Federal Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson ruled “improper.” Dawson also rapped the knuckles of two parliamentary secretaries for “improper letter-writing” as well.

But Duncan’s resignation was notable for something else: his unequivocal acceptance of ministerial responsibility, when he wrote: “I take full responsibility for my actions and the consequences they have brought.”

If Mary Dawson found Flaherty’s letter “improper” and if John Duncan knew all on his own that his letter was “not appropriate,” against what measure did Fraser reach the conclusion that emails and other communications from minister Pat Pimm’s office were just “regrettable misinterpretations resulting from ambiguous language?”

 

Dermod Travis is the executive director of IntegrityBC. www.integritybc.ca

8 September 2014