Pivot Legal Society has been, in effect, barred from doing advocacy work with the money it's receiving from the Law Foundation of BC, according to the high-profile poverty law group's executive director. The foundation refused to comment on that apparent restriction, which was put in place late last year. But a provincial New Democrat MLA said it begs the question of whether this was an attempt to muzzle Pivot during lead-up to the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games - speculation rejected by the foundation.
Here's the background: the foundation is a 41-year-old, government-created non-profit that hands out legal education, research, aid and reform funding.
The funding comes from the interest earned by money lawyers temporarily put in pooled trust accounts on behalf of their clients.
In 2006, Pivot applied for a $360,000 grant to provide advocacy, legal representation and strategic litigation aimed at making legal reforms to address homeless issues in the Downtown Eastside.
The group's executive director John Richardson said his understanding was that three-year grant, which was approved by the foundation, would be renewed when it expired in December 2009.
But, on September 22 of that year, the foundation (whose 18-member board includes three government appointees) gave Pivot some bad news.
Because of its financial circumstances and the need to bankroll programs that had already been approved for ongoing funding, the foundation wouldn't be inviting the group to apply for further funding.
Mr. Richardson described Pivot as being "very shocked and dismayed" by that decision.
He said Pivot board members met with three representatives from the foundation on November 8 to argue against it.
Those representatives included two staffers, as well as government appointee and ex-Surrey mayor Doug McCallum - the foundation governor responsible for liaising with Pivot.
In the wake of that meeting, the foundation's board agreed on November 21 to extend Pivot's grant by three months.
But there seems to have been a string attached: that $30,000 extension could only be used to provide individual representation on housing and homeless issues.
"We did a lot of advocacy with the grant - looking for systemic change," Mr. Richardson explained. "And they're requiring us now to only do individual representation. It's more of a clinic now."
Mr. Richardson said he didn't know why the conditions of the grant were changed.
And, for its part, the foundation is keeping mum about the specifics of its funding relationship with Pivot.
Last week, the foundation's executive director Wayne Robertson telephoned Public Eye to state, "I'm not in a position to talk to you about funding decisions with our grantees."
"It's a relationship between us and our grantee," he continued. "And if they want to comment that's up to them, I suppose. But we won't."
But New Democrat housing and social development critic Shane Simpson is commenting.
Speaking with Public Eye, Mr. Simpson said that, given the economic downturn, it's understandable the foundation might not have had the money to continue funding Pivot.
But the Vancouver-Hastings MLA said "somebody should explain why" the grant's conditions were changed to "close the door on (Pivot's) ability to speak out" on homelessness issues in advance of the Olympics.
"You have to ask yourself where that pressure comes from and whether it comes from people like Mr. McCallum" - who Mr. Simpson described as a "clear political partisan."
In a follow-up interview, Mr. Robertson said politics played no part in the foundation's decisions concerning Pivot. Nor was there an attempt to muzzle the society.
"I can tell you the law foundation has a long history of not being involved in politics. Independent, principle-based, decision-making is something we pride ourselves on."