CANADA

Listening in

Taped phone calls topple a B.C. minister

JOHN PIFER July 23 1990
CANADA

Listening in

Taped phone calls topple a B.C. minister

JOHN PIFER July 23 1990

Listening in

CANADA

Taped phone calls topple a B.C. minister

Even by the standards of British Columbia’s colorful politics, it was a bizarre series of events. On Wednesday, July 11, radio and TV stations across the province broadcast a tape recording, released by the opposition New Democratic Party, of Attorney General Stuart (Bud) Smith in private conversations on his own car telephone. On one recording, Smith was monitored as he discussed strategy with one of his senior officials for seeking to influence an investigation of former Social Credit tourism minister William Reid—an investigation with which Smith had vowed publicly that he and his department would not interfere. On another part of the tape, Smith made disparaging remarks to a reporter friend about a lawyer who was prosecuting Reid. Within 24 hours of the tapes’ being made public, Smith had resigned, assistant deputy minister William Stewart was suspended, and an RCMP investigation into their conduct had been announced.

On Friday, an anonymous caller to the legislative press gallery in Victoria advised that another tape of Smith’s car phone conversations could be found in the legislature parking lot. As well as adding to the political dimensions of the original revelations, the second tape, containing conversations from as early as mid1989, contributed to Smith’s personal embarrassment. It included remarks by Smith that were highly critical of Premier William Vander Zalm and two cabinet colleagues. And it revealed a close personal relationship between Smith and the reporter, Margot Sinclair, who covers the B.C. legislature for Vancouver television station CKVU. Late on Friday, Sinclair said that she, too, was “stepping aside.”

The controversy erupted when New Democratic Party justice critic Munmohan Sihota tabled a transcript of one tape in the legislature, then released the transcript and copies of the tape to reporters. Sihota said that he had received the tape through an intermediary from “a concerned British Columbian”— whose identity, he said, was unknown to him— who had captured the conversations by means of a radio scanning device that isolated Smith’s car telephone calls. After getting a lawyer’s opinion that the taping was legal and was not an invasion of privacy, Sihota said that he decided to release some of the contents of the calls because of what he called the seriousness of Smith’s actions. Sihota insisted that the tapes revealed that Smith had “tampered” with a supposedly independent prosecution of Reid by discussing with assistant deputy minister Stewart how Sihota could be cross-examined by Reid’s lawyers, and by passing on defamatory comments about the prosecutor to a reporter. Smith, Sihota alleged, was guilty of

“offending the independence and impartiality of his office.”

Vander Zalm, accepting the ninth resignation of a minister in less than four years in office, accused the NDP of stooping to “blackmail” in releasing the tapes to the media. Within an hour of Smith’s departure, deputy

Attorney General Edward Hughes announced Stewart’s suspension and said that the RCMP would investigate whether there is evidence that the two men interfered with the course of justice. Hughes also said that, to ensure impartiality, the RCMP would give its findings to the deputy attorney general of Alberta.

Reid resigned as tourism minister last September, after a media report that he had misused provincial lottery funds. Then in February, the provincial controller general reported that Reid had been closely involved in arranging for a $277,000 provincial lottery

grant to go to a recycling company, part of which in turn went to a firm owned by Reid’s 1986 election campaign manager. For its part, the RCMP recommended that charges be laid against Reid—a recommendation that Smith’s officials turned down.

Amid the ensuing controversy, Vander Zalm named B.C. Ombudsman Stephen Owen as a one-man commission to look into why Reid was not charged. But that commission postponed its inquiry on June 1, when Sihota laid a private charge against Reid. The NDP hired Victoriabased lawyer Peter Firestone to prosecute their case. Then on June 27, Sihota dropped that charge, explaining that Firestone could not obtain RCMP files on the case.

Last week, Sihota said that the taped conversations that he was releasing were recorded in mid-June, when Firestone was still pursuing his case. In one tape, assistant deputy minister Stewart could be heard telling Smith that Firestone had been withdrawn from a murder prosecution because he “couldn’t handle the pressure, didn’t do any work... and almost had a nervous breakdown.” Smith, laughing, replied, “How can we get that out?” Stewart also told Smith that he had been in contact with Reid’s lawyer—contrary to Smith’s public assurances about his department’s noninvolvement—and the two discussed the possibility of challenging Sihota’s testimony.

In another taped conversation, Smith told reporter Sinclair that Firestone was fired from the earlier case “because he crumbles under pressure.” Added Smith: “If someone could get onto that, they’ve got the story of the year.” Sinclair replied, “You’ve been very busy,” adding later,“I shall ponder.” The tape discovered on Friday included several conversations between Smith and Sinclair and others between Smith and his wife, Daphne. In one call, Smith told Sinclair that he would meet her after 11 p.m. at g his Victoria apartment, and she replied 8 that she would “bring the white wine.” Announcing his resignation, Smith insisted that he had done nothing wrong, but added, “It is my view I could not properly serve the office I hold during the course of an investigation.” For his part, Firestone reacted angrily to the disclosures. Accusing Smith of trying “to sully my reputation for political purposes,” Firestone said that he had retained a lawyer and was “considering all options.” But aside from the legal fallout from the dramatic revelations, it remained unclear what the political implications would be. That would depend upon whether the public objected primarily to the interception and political use of the private conversations—or to the actual content of those exchanges.

JOHN PIFER in Victoria