Earlier today, Public Eye reported rumours that former attorney general Geoff Plant was now working for aboriginal relations and reconciliation. Scrummed by your humble organ and the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.'s Jeff Davies, Minister Tom Christensen confirmed Mr. Plant had been retained - through his law firm Heenan Blaikie LLP - to assist government "with some legal and policy advice with respect to treaty negotiations and aboriginal issues specific to the New Relationship." Mr. Christensen also said the ministry was "talking to him as to whether we may be able to retain him as a senior advisor to provide some assistance" at the Haida Nation negotiating table.
The minister also fielded questions as to why Mr. Plant's hiring doesn't violate the Members' Conflict of Interest Act. That legislation states government cannot "award or approve a contract with, or grant a benefit to, a former member of the Executive Council or former parliamentary secretary, until 24 months have expired after the date when the former member of the Executive Council or former parliamentary secretary ceased to hold office." But it turns out that provision doesn't apply to "contracts or benefits in respect of further duties in the service of the government." And, according to the conflict of interest commissioner H.A.D. Oliver that's what this contract is. The following is a complete transcript of that scrum.
Public Eye Earlier this summer, your communications office refused to say whether or not Geoff Plant was working for the ministry. Now we hear that Geoff Plant is perhaps working for your ministry in some kind of capacity. What exactly is Geoff Plant doing?
Minister Christensen Just recently, in the last few weeks, government has entered into a contract with Heenan Blaikie - the law firm that Geoff works at, and it's for Geoff specifically - to assist us with some legal and policy advice with respect to treaty negotiations and aboriginal issues specific to the New Relationship. So we're certainly very appreciative of being able to have that assistance.
Public Eye What about the conflict of interest...
Minister Christensen Obviously, we need to be...
Public Eye I'm sure you anticipated this question.
Minister Christensen Yes. We certainly needed to be very mindful of the members' conflict of interest act. The whole matter has been thoroughly reviewed so that we could move forward within the parameters of the act. And I think it's a great deal for the taxpayers of British Columbia in that we are able to retain somebody who has both an in-depth knowledge of aboriginal law from his background in legal practice - as well as the practical knowledge of having served as attorney general and the ministry responsible for treaty negotiations. And just brings a great deal of skill and expertise to the file.
Public Eye And is he going to be chief negotiator for the Haida table?
Minister Christensen No. That is not the subject of the retainer. We are looking at what we want to do around Haida. I don't contemplate we would have Geoff as a chief negotiator there. But we are talking to him as to whether we may be able to retain him as a senior advisor to provide some assistance on that file.
Public Eye On the Haida table?
Minister Christensen On the Haida table. Yes.
Mr. Davies Doesn't this create the appearance he's trading on inside knowledge he obtained when he was attorney general?
Minister Christensen Not at all. He'll be working for the government of British Columbia. So he is pursuing the government's interest in those negotiations. He's reporting to government. And there is nothing that's contrary to the public interest in what Geoff may be doing for the province.
Public Eye The Members' Conflict of Interest Act states that executive council is not allowed to give a benefit or contract to a former member of executive council within 24 months of him sitting on the executive...
Minister Christensen That's why it's important that we review the whole matter with the conflict of interest commissioner and be certain that the work we are retaining Geoff to do is within the parameters of the act.
Public Eye How is this not a benefit or contract though?
Minister Christensen Certainly, there is a benefit to the province. There is obviously a financial benefit to Heenan Blaikie. And then indirectly to Mr. Plant. But it is within what the members' conflict of interest act allows. And, clearly, the work he is doing is consistent with the expertise he is able to bring to that work by virtue of having been a member of executive council.
Public Eye Doesn't this open the door to, for example, "Hey, Graham Bruce! You're without a job. Let's get you with some expertise on this labour file!"
Minister Christensen Well, again, anytime that we have people who have formerly served in government that may bring a particular expertise to a matter, I think it's in the best interest of British Columbians that we at least consider them to pursue that work. And, in the case of Mr. Plant, he clearly brings a great depth of knowledge to this file, a great depth of experience to this file. And it is in the best interest of the province that we retain him.