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Op/Ed: It's a matter of disclosure

It's been a little crazy what been happening at the BC Legislature.

Pity assignment editors in newsrooms across B.C. this month. No shortage of material.

Monty’s Showroom – now ashes, after the Plaza Hotel in Victoria burned to the ground – found itself back in the news, gang activity on the West Shore on Vancouver Island regrettably contributed to news cycles, the scandal at the B.C. legislature did too, money laundering and a new – but not so new – label has been thrown into B.C.'s political lexicon, “politically exposed persons.”

At first glance these stories may seem unrelated and by and large they are, but they've also had more than a nodding acquaintance with each other over the last decade.

How could Monty's connect – even remotely – to the goings on at the legislature?

It's an interesting tale in a raised eyebrows kind of way, but for now it offers a bit of context to the term “politically exposed persons.”

Much to View Royal mayor David Screech's chagrin, he recently learned that the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada – better known as FINTRAC – considers him a PEP.

Screech wasn't singled out, not by a longshot. Who else makes the cut?

Every mayor in Canada is on the list from villages to Toronto, as is every member of the Senate, House of Commons and provincial legislatures. Deputy ministers or equivalent rank, heads of government agencies and Crown corporations are also on the list.

A PEP designation doesn't necessarily imply any wrongdoing on the part of the designee, just risk.

Screech can take some comfort in the fact that a person ceases to be a PEP, “five years after they have left office.”

One British Columbian who likely makes the list is the former clerk of the legislature, Craig James.

James was no ordinary public employee and while the PEP designation applies to the banking sector, many of the same risks could be faced by any employer, even more so when it's government.

Family members and close associates are taken into account under the PEP designation as well, including step-children, “if they've been legally adopted through marriage.”

FINTRAC goes on to note that “It is critical to consider family members or close associates of PEPs.”

Not so much in B.C. when it comes to issues surrounding conflict-of-interest and other such matters.

Unlike Alberta's 88-page conflict-of-interest legislation for MLAs, B.C.'s legislation – all 4,600 words of it –doesn't speak to possible conflicts when they involve an MLA's family or close associates.

Imagine how deficient it could be for some of the posts in B.C.'s public sector?

Consider this real-life scenario: one job applicant, qualified for two vacant posts: one in a non-sensitive ministry, another in a sensitive unit in a highly sensitive ministry.

Would the applicant's entanglements with senior members of a street gang factor into your decision as to which job to offer, particularly when organized crime would have an interest in the inner workings of one of those two posts?

The sensitive ministry, responding to questions, didn't offer much comfort.

B.C.'s public service security screening policy first set in 1988, and revised in 2010, still places more onus on self-reporting than it does on thoroughly vetting applicants and carrying out periodic checks on senior mandarins.

Do revised policies need to apply to each and every member of the public sector and be made public? No, but it should for some, especially those who find themselves on the PEP roll and for those who work in highly sensitive offices of government, regardless of the position they hold.

How much should the government know about the outside activities of some employees? More than they seem to know now. 

Was the Legislative Assembly Management Committee kept fully apprised of James work with McGill University and Dublin-based consultancy firm AARC Ltd.? Hansard transcripts of their meetings would suggest not.

It's a delicate balancing act between the right to privacy and the right of citizens to expect that senior employees are free of undue influence from inside government or elsewhere.

Disclosure reduces the risk of conflict-of-interest. It's the knowledge that allows others to judge decisions that might be made by an office holder or appointee.

When pertinent facts about key decision makers in government are unknown, viewed as idle gossip, or overlooked entirely, it points to dropping the ball.

Being a PEP may be burdensome for those designated as such, but one of its goals is an added layer of protection for Canada's political structure from criminal elements. That same layer is needed in government.

Something little-known about gangs and organized crime is the fact they like to ingratiate themselves in diverse social arenas, including politics. That's a story for another day.

Dermod Travis is the executive director of IntegrityBC                    

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