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Premier’s staff targeted swing ridings: paper

Premier Christy Clark’s inner circle developed and executed a comprehensive strategy that used government resources for partisan purposes in an effort to advance the interests of the B.C. Liberal Party in swing ridings, The Province has learned.
Premier Christy Clark’s inner circle developed and executed a comprehensive strategy that used government resources for partisan purposes in an effort to advance the interests of the B.C. Liberal Party in swing ridings, The Province has learned.

Evidence of a second plan originating from the Premier’s Office that violates government standards of conduct and blurs lines between partisan and government work comes a day after the premier claimed no prior knowledge of the controversial multicultural outreach strategy.

Sources say the so-called Swing Team Strategy was executed through the Premier’s Office beginning in 2011 by Clark’s former principal secretary, Dimitri Pantazopoulos, a well-connected Tory, with involvement from Kim Haakstad, Clark’s former deputy chief of staff.

“Dimitri was the driving force behind the swing teams, from its inception through to the operational phase,” a confidential source told The Province. “Swing team leaders reported directly to him, and he co-ordinated activities between the teams and the party.”

Confidential correspondence provided to The Province places Pantazopoulos, who left the Premier’s Office in March 2012 and is now on contract with the B.C. Liberal Party, in a conversation with the leader of one of the swing teams.

Efforts to contact Pantazopoulos by publication deadline were unsuccessful.

Confidential sources tell The Province that there were between 15 and 20 of the teams, whose main purpose was to “gather information that would help the B.C. Liberals win the swing riding we were assigned to,” according to another confidential source.

Ridings are defined as “swing” if the winning vote margin is slim.

Led by an executive assistant, the teams also consisted of a legislative assistant, a caucus communications officer and a caucus research officer. The key people involved were political staff but were barred from using government office time or resources for party interests.

Their party work must be clearly separated from activities related to their employment, states the Public Services Act.

In at least two instances, the teams were led by ministerial assistants, The Province has learned.

Work on the swing teams, described by sources as partisan, was conducted during regular office hours at the B.C. legislature, a clear violation of the standards of conduct as outlined in the act.

In at least one instance, a meeting was held in a cabinet minister’s office, according to private correspondence given to The Province.

“It was clear that what we were doing was not supposed to be done on staff time,” a source told The Province. “All communications were done through personal email addresses so as to not be obtained through Freedom of Information” requests.

Email chains provided to The Province between members of a swing riding confirm that communication was done via private email.

The premier’s chief of staff, Dan Doyle, addressed the issue via a memo sent to personnel late Friday.

“I have been advised that, for a time, there were groupings of political staff to discuss issues related to swing ridings. These meetings did involve political staff at the legislature,” read Doyle’s statement. “No one should be surprised that political staff — on either side of the legislature — talk politics during their work day.”

His memo also notes the discussions were “fairly well known in the building at the time as it involved dozens of staff” and that they “have not happened in well over a year.”

“As well, the Dyble Report recommends that we clarify the lines for political staff and we will do that,” Doyle’s statement says.

Discovery of a second taxpayer-funded strategy aimed at winning the 2013 provincial election comes at the end of long week for Clark, who was badly shaken by the findings of an investigation into the ethnic outreach plan, which also originated in her office.

Led by her deputy minister, John Dyble, the report into the ethnic plan, released Thursday, found evidence of serious misconduct by government employees and misuse of government funds.

It also saw those involved try to hide their activities through use of private emails.

Haakstad and another government employee resigned as part of the fallout, which also cost former multicultural minister John Yap his cabinet post and resulted in the B.C. Liberal Party writing a $70,000 repayment cheque to the government.

Clark has said she didn’t know about the ethnic plan until it was leaked to the media by the B.C. NDP.

Duties of swing riding members included: compiling lists of stakeholders and elected officials in the riding, identifying government/achievements/“quick wins” in the riding, and liaising with riding associations and Liberal Party organizers.

“My sense of what we were doing was that it was wrong,” a source told The Province. “There were so many expectations that staff would support the party on and off the clock, and there was a lot of party work done on staff time.

“It was never really an option — it was an inherent part of the work culture. I did feel guilty. I did feel like I had to do it to keep my job.”

Asked about the swing riding strategy, a spokesperson at the Premier’s Office said they had no knowledge of it and could not offer a response.

However, spokesman Ben Chin did say: “Political staffers on both sides work long hours and the different responsibilities can tend to blur.

“I think the Dyble report makes it clear that we need some better definitions of those roles so that political staffers in all political parties understand where the lines are more clearly.”