Tangled Police Investigation Rattles B.c.'s Liberal Party

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VANCOUVER -- "It's obviously a money trail," the man with a rich
Indo-Canadian accent said, talking on his cellphone as he weaved through
heavy traffic.

"There are a few individuals involved . . . these guys all came from the
Island. They worked actively on Paul Martin's campaign and probably brought
in a whole lot of money. . . . That's the real nitty-gritty of the story."

With that, the caller, a Liberal organizer who didn't want to be
identified, began reeling off a list of names and family connections that
illustrated the tangled nature of a police investigation that has shaken
the Liberal Party in British Columbia and raised questions about whether
the government of B.C. is, in fact, involved.

If it is, as police suspect, a key link appears to be David Basi, a
powerful ministerial aide who was fired after his legislative offices were
searched two weeks ago. Mr. Basi had access to confidential government
files -- including multimillion-dollar plans to privatize the Coquihalla
Highway and to sell parts of B.C. Rail. Unverified reports in the B.C.
media allege the legislative end of the investigation involves his handling
of the BC Rail file.

Mr. Basi, a top aide to Finance Minister Gary Collins, was also a key
backroom organizer for the federal and provincial Liberals, leading a team
of political operatives based on Vancouver Island known as the Basi Boys,
who specialized in taking over ridings by signing up masses of new party
members and busing in supporters. Some people say it was typical,
hardscrabble B.C. politics. Others say it veered over the line.

Following the trail of the Basi Boys leads into a murky political world
where rumours swirl, fed in part by a desire for political revenge against
an elite group of Liberals who cut a swath through the province as they
captured ridings for Mr. Martin's leadership bid and built Premier Gordon
Campbell's power base.

Their influence was largely based on being able to bring in the
Indo-Canadian vote. And they often played rough in doing it.

"It broke my heart," a former Liberal scrutineer said of watching how Mr.
Basi and his colleagues took over one Vancouver Island riding in 1997.Allan
Warnke, a former Liberal MLA, said typically they would sweep in with an
overwhelming number of new members. He said the party turned a blind eye to
this kind of political swarming, but he thought it was wrong.He said Basi's
Boys mostly worked in ridings around Victoria, but they were active
provincially and helped the party's soaring membership numbers at the
federal level during the drive to build support for Mr. Martin's leadership
bid. The size of the federal party in B.C. grew from 4,000 members in
February, 2002, to more than 37,000 last fall. About 40 per cent are
Indo-Canadian.

"Concentrate on the memberships," Mr. Warnke said, sounding like the
unnamed Liberal organizer who felt the key to the case was the money trail.

"There is cash around that had to cover those memberships. In the old days
the purpose of memberships was to raise funds, but in this case you had a
lot of loose cash kicking around. You create a membership and then you have
the money covering the membership. Now, where did the money come from?

"Where did all this spare change come from?" he asked.

Mr. Basi and his brother-in-law, Bob Virk, assistant to Transportation
Minister Judith Reid, have not been available for interviews since the
raids. Mr. Virk's office was also raided.

Throughout the 1990s, Mr. Basi built a solid reputation in the party as a
bright, young Liberal who could get things done. Now he is seen as a major
political liability that has pulled the Liberals into a corrosive scandal.

The case began quietly on Dec. 15, when Constable Ravinder Dosanjh of the
Victoria Police Department was called into the chief's office and suspended
without pay.

Five days later, nine people were arrested in Victoria, Vancouver and
Toronto as a 20-month investigation into drugs and organized crime drew its
first blood.

In B.C., organized crime plays big, exporting potent marijuana, known as
B.C. Bud, by the tonne and bringing back shipments of cocaine, guns and money.

The Hells Angels, an Asian gang called the Big Circle Boys and
Indo-Canadian networks are all known to be involved in drug smuggling.

Police estimate 2,000 to 3,000 grow-ops are producing B.C. Bud in Greater
Vancouver. In Surrey, in November alone, police raided 38 grow-ops, seizing
1,400 kilograms of dried marijuana buds, which could have been traded in
the United States for 300 kilograms of cocaine.

In Langley, a year ago, trucks from two transportation firms were impounded
after police found bundles of 300 to 400 kilograms of marijuana mixed in
with their general loads bound for the United States.

Those cases, none of which have been linked to the legislative raids,
illustrate how big the drug business is. The Organized Crime Agency of B.C.
says organized crime has so much cash it is weighed, not counted, and
laundering money is a major criminal preoccupation.

The arrest last month of the nine suspects didn't draw any attention. They
were released within 24 hours and none were charged. It might have ended
there, as just another drug case -- but then police raided the legislative
offices of Mr. Basi and Mr. Virk. Boxes of government documents, which
police are still waiting for legal clearance to read because of cabinet
privilege, were carted away. Police have said they are looking for
information related to money laundering.

Mr. Basi, who has been described as "the most powerful political aide in
Victoria," was promptly fired after the Premier consulted with his top
assistant, Martyn Brown.

A source told The Globe and Mail that when it came to government secrets,
Mr. Basi "had access to everything. Absolutely everything."

Mr. Campbell has not said what he knows, if anything, about Mr. Basi's
activities. But after returning from holidays in Hawaii, he was adamant
that the government had done the right thing in firing him.

Mr. Virk had a less sensitive job. He is suspended with pay while the
police investigation continues.

On the day that the legislature was raided, police also searched the
offices of Erik Bornman and Brian Kieran, directors of Pilothouse Public
Affairs Group. Mr. Bornman is communications director for the federal
Liberals in B.C. and a lobbyist who counts among his clients OmniTRAX Inc.,
a U.S. company that made a losing bid for BC Rail.

The offices of Bruce Clark, Mr. Martin's chief fundraiser on the West
Coast, were also searched. He is the brother of Deputy Premier Christy
Clark. And police visited Mark Marissen, the campaign chairman in B.C. for
Mr. Martin's leadership bid and husband of Ms. Clark, saying he might be
the "innocent recipient" of important documents.

Shocked, and concerned, he searched his computer files and turned over
material he thought might be of help.

"I can only say . . . the documents did not pertain to the Liberal Party of
Canada's or the Paul Martin campaign's fundraising or organizational
activities," Mr. Marissen said.

Other Liberals have strived to distance the party from the investigation.
"At the end of the day I'm not overly worried that any of us are going to
be terribly caught up in this, but it's not fun going through it," said
Bill Cunningham, president of the Liberal Party of Canada in B.C.

"First of all, the law says as a political organization we can't accept any
money unless it's disclosed. So money coming in, by law, has to be clean,"
said Mr. Cunningham, adding that the party can account for every cent it
has received.

Since the raids, he's spent most of his time denying false rumours and
media reports, such as one that had Mr. Basi paying for a charter flight
for about 300 young Liberals to attend the party's leadership convention
won by Mr. Martin. Mr. Cunningham said, three businessmen sponsored the flight.

"The most confounding thing is that . . . if there is a linkage, why isn't
the RCMP talking to us? The party has never been approached. If this really
is about any money that's purported to have come into the federal party,
well it all goes through us, it all passes through our hands and we haven't
had so much as a phone call or a knock on the door."

Despite Mr. Cunningham's confidence that the party will eventually be
exonerated, the raids have shattered the Liberals' hopes of achieving a
historic breakthrough in B.C., and the provincial party, which holds a
massive majority, is beginning to look suddenly vulnerable. "I think
frankly . . . you have to be wondering if the Liberal Party can win even
safe seats in British Columbia after this," said Greg Wilson, a former
member of the Liberal executive in B.C.


Pubdate: Mon, 12 Jan 2004
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)
Copyright: 2004, The Globe and Mail Company
Contact: letters@globeandmail.ca
Website: The Globe and Mail: Canadian, World, Politics and Business News & Analysis