An embattled premier twists in the wind of a fierce courtroom drama
Clark’s date with destiny
An embattled premier twists in the wind of a fierce courtroom drama
Almost six months ago, on a dark March evening, the RCMP showed up at British Columbia Premier Glen Clark’s modest east-end Vancouver house armed with a search warrant. The dramatic raid—aired on the evening news after a BCTV reporter was tipped to the story—has never been fully explained because the information used to obtain the search warrant was sealed by the courts. Since then, there has been constant legal wrangling by news organizations to make the documents public, as is normally done. So far, they haven’t succeeded, but the secrecy has served to further cloud the reputation of an embattled premier and leave him twisting in the wind of an unusual courtroom drama.
Last Friday in court, it was revealed for the first time that the police used wiretap evidence as part of the material to obtain the warrant to search Clark’s home. And while the premier has always stated he is “desperate to get all of it cleared up”, his lawyer, David Gibbons, is arguing strenuously against publishing the information in the documents. “Innocent people could be irreparably damaged the moment this subject matter is published,” he told Patrick Dohm, associate chief justice of the B.C. Supreme Court, who reserved his decision until this week. He also wants the warrant on Clark’s home quashed entirely—and is applying to Dohm, the same judge who issued it, to argue it was “an unlawful search.”
Since the early 1980s, the Supreme Court of Canada has held that the public has the right to inspect the information behind search warrants and other
police intrusions. But in the spring of 1997, Parliament changed the rules slightly to give judges more discretion to withhold this information if they felt justice would not be served.
The legal contretemps over the search warrants only adds more fuel to the
fierce fire already burning under Clark’s government: key ministers have resigned in protest over his leadership, there is controversy over excessive spending, and the NDP has a paltry 16per-cent approval rating. Fighting publication of the warrant so strongly has
led many British Columbians to believe he has something to hide.
The RCMP searched Clarks house, police said, in connection with the province’s decision to grant a conditional licence for a charity casino to a friend and neighbour of the premier’s, 34-year-old Dimitrios Pilarinos. Clark maintains stoutly he is innocent of any wrongdoing. But since no one has been charged, speculation is that Gibbons’ move to have the warrants quashed entirely is as much political as it is legal. “It looks bad to have been someone who was searched,” explains Dan Burnett, lawyer for BCTV, CBC and CKNW radio. “You erase the stigma if it looks like you were searched unjustly.”
Guessing about the motives for a search warrant on Clark’s home—and for 13 other locations that included government offices, private homes and cars—has become something of a parlour game among British Columbia’s political set, with some NDP supporters even suggesting it was instigated by a cabal of Liberals, the RCMP and the media. Initially, the Crown argued the search warrant information could not be made public because it would hinder an investigation. Then, Dohm allowed edited versions to be released to a select group of lawyers. But they were forbidden to discuss the material with their clients, which proved a hardship.
In response, Dohm lifted the veil further by allowing the lawyers and their clients to read the unedited documents. The list includes Clark, his legal team and at least 20 editors and writers whose organizations are pushing for the information’s release. “It’s been very frustrating not being able to get at the contents of what are normally considered public documents,” says Patricia Graham, senior editor at The Vancouver Sun. “It keeps the premier under a cloud, the RCMP under a cloud and the media under a cloud.”
Dohm warned the readers that they could not share the information with anyone or publish anything. In newsrooms across Vancouver, an invisible wall was erected between those who had read the documents and those who
hadn’t. Editors who had seen the material could not discuss it with reporters. Journalists who have looked at the search warrant material include those from VTV, Global television, the National Post, The Globe and Mail, Maclean’s, The Province and The Canadian Press. “Only two people in our newsroom have had access to the information,” says John Daly, the BCTV reporter who broke the news of the RCMP raid on Clark’s home. “I’ve deliberately not wanted to see anything. I don’t want to have my hands tied reporting on this story.”
What the public does know: last year, Clark’s friend Pilarinos applied for a charity casino licence at the North Burnaby Inn in tandem with Steve Ng, who owns the hotel, as well as a strip club and an Internet gambling company. While the police were investigating the granting of a provisional casino licence to the two men, they were also looking into allegations of an illegal gambling club at the North Burnaby Inn. (Pilarinos was eventually charged with being found in an illegal gaming house there.)
The police were tipped off about the case in August, 1998, by an employee in Liberal Leader Gordon Campbell’s constituency office who had been approached by an anonymous informer. The informant was Dimitris Vrahnos, a federal government employee and member of Vancouver’s Greek community, who police finally tracked down in February. Vrahnos had also sent The Vancouver Sun a three-page memo in January detailing his allegations. This was sent on to the Gaming Audit and Investigation Office, which examines the background of casino licence appli-
cants, and to the RCMP.
After a police raid on the North Burnaby Inn and his home, Clark described Pilarinos as “a neighbour of mine, we see each other occasionally, our children attend the same school and they play together.” Pilarinos, Clark later acknowledged, built a deck on the back of Clark’s house. Soon it came to light that not only had Pilarinos worked on Clark’s residence, he had vacationed at the Clark family cabin in the Okanagan and had constructed a deck there as well.
Clark’s lawyer, Gibbons, vehemendy stated the premier was not involved in any of the decision-making on the North Burnaby Inn charity casino licence and a government memo was distributed to the media to show Clark had kept himself at arm’s length. But more than a few eyebrows were raised when it was shown that the cabinet had OK’d the provisional licence when the Burnaby city council had vigorously opposed it and when the gaming audit office had not yet given its stamp of approval.
For British Columbians, who have seen two of their last three premiersBill Vander Zalm and Mike Fiarcourt—resign in the teeth of scandals, the casino licence controversy has a wearying sense of déjà vu. Even if Clark manages to succeed in keeping the search warrant material out of the public spodight, it won’t be the end of the story. This fall, British Columbia’s conflict of interest commissioner will begin a hearing to see if the premier did, in fact, keep an arm’s length distance from the Pilarinos’ casino application. Indeed, it is probably only a matter of time before the information behind the search warrants sees the light of day. ED
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