Once upon a time, bribing a public official with $50,000 would be a serious crime, one particularly offensive to public trust in government. I don’t know if developers Anthony Ralph (Tony) Young and James Seymour (Jim) Duncan worried about the ethics of this sort of transaction. Concern probably crossed their minds when they faced criminal charges, accused of paying Ministerial Assistant Dave Basi to influence the Agricultural Land Commission to release almost 400 acres of land from Vancouver Island’s shrinking land reserves.
Now resolved, the bribe may have have been a fine business move. Apparently, Prosecutor Janet Winteringham (yes, she of the Basi/Virk prosecution team) dropped charges against Young and Duncan as individuals. Instead, she accepted the guilty plea of a company, Shambrook Hills Development Corp. The company’s lawyer entered a guilty plea today to one count of paying a bribe to a public official in connection with the ALC. Justice Anne MacKenzie levied a $200,000 fine against Shambrook. (Where have we heard that judge’s name before?)
Pretty rough treatment of that corporation, eh? Two hundred thousand seems a fair amount but let us put it into better context. The property involved is 382 acres along the Sooke River, now substantially developed with homes that listed for a half million dollars each and more. The plan is to develop 700 homes but there is still more ALR land in the area that could be subject to future development.
So, if 700 residential units result in $350 million dollars in sales, the fine of $200 K is less than one seventeenth (1/17) of ONE percent of the business generated, a fraction of the real estate commissions that will result.
A real estate friend suggested another analysis. He said that moving 382 raw acres from the ALR to ready-to-build residential property probably added about $35 million to the land value. Again, the fine of $200 K is less than half of one percent of the increased value. A commenter at Paul Willcocks‘ blog calculated that $200,000 fine divided by 700 homes equals $285.71 per lot. Small price to pay, one thinks.
Nobel winning economist Joseph Stiglitz was recently quoted:
Legal penalties for financial fraud in the U.S. have become “just a cost of doing business,” Stiglitz said. “It’s like a parking fine. Sometimes you make a decision to park knowing that you might get a fine because going around the corner to the parking lot takes you too much time.”
Every citizen in this province, excluding land developers, believes that retaining agricultural land becomes more important as years go by. The ALR is designed to protect the rights of future generations. We despoiled prime farmlands of the Fraser Valley in early days. The land reserve was introduced by David Barrett’s government in 1973 and no government since has dared repeal the policy. So, bribery to defeat laws as important as those protecting agricultural land is particularly egregious.
Just as in the main case involving Basi and Virk, the so-called independent prosecutors have minimized criminal acts and dealt out another slap on the wrist. In this case, the people paying the bribes don’t even get a criminal record. Instead, a company pays a fine, one that wouldn’t even begin to pay the costs of prosecution.
Prosecutor Janet Winteringham, a lawyer who failed in a bid for 2009 election as a Bencher of the BC Law Society, acting more like a BC Liberal Party spokesman, had this to say after court:
“This land was coming out of the Agricultural Land Reserve in any event and so the payment of the money was really for nothing.”
Oh, really? Clearly, the developers did not believe that to be the case when they put $50,000 cash into Dave Basi’s hands.
Justice Anne MacKenzie owes an explanation to the public for her actions in this case and in the larger BC Rail scandal. She has a responsibility to ensure justice has been done in fact and in appearance. The Chief Judge of the Supreme Court of Canada has encouraged such accountability. MacKenzie must stop hiding behind her silk robe and make public all facts known by the court in the matter of political corruption. She should start by ensuring that all documentary evidence is made public and not destroyed. Without openness, the Supreme Court will be accused of aiding in a cover-up in the most significant political scandal in BC History.
In the words of the late great Peter Cook:
“I could have been a Judge, but I never had the Latin for the judgin’. I never had it, so I’d had it, as far as being a judge was concerned. . . I would much prefer to be a judge than a coal miner because of the absence of falling coal.”