Les Leyne: University scandal still haunts B.C. Liberals

Les Leyne mugshot genericThey were laughing on both sides of the legislature Monday as Advanced Education Minister Andrew Wilkinson took an initial stab at defending the indefensible.

But different kinds of laughs. Satisfied amusement on the Opposition side, as they watched the minister squirming over another mess left behind by his predecessor, Amrik Virk. And a sort of hopeless surrender on the government benches, as the full absurdity of the situation sank in.

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The accusation was that Kwantlen Polytechnic University, now established as the Animal House fraternity in the B.C. higher education world as far as its regard for financial propriety is concerned, had paid a lobbyist a total of $177,000 over the past several years to suck up to B.C. Liberal government officials. That’s a $177,000 bill for “relationship-building” over a time that partly coincided with the period it was secretly flouting the government’s salary limits for executive compensation.

To be clear, it’s a government-mandated institution that reports to a minister, has its own external-relations department and belongs to an association that represents its interests in the political realm, shelling out cash to hire a lobbyist to do what you’d think they could accomplish on their own: Stay in touch with government.

The New Democrats unearthed a pitch that Liberal-connected lobbyist Mark Jiles made to Kwantlen in 2009. A year earlier, “polytechnic” had been added to its title. But Jiles noted it had few of the programs that fit that description, so it was a polytechnic university in name only. So he offered to help with its government-relations strategy and on adding key programs.

That would involve a “relationship-building program” with government decision-makers, and he listed a dozen Liberal MLAs and cabinet ministers. “I have strong relationships with these MLAs and ministers, however, I am also able to engage [others], as required.”

He also planned ongoing monitoring of all areas of government and strategic counsel on new policies that would affect Kwantlen. There was also an “intelligence-gathering program” in which he would give detailed briefings to board meetings.

All that for just $5,000 a month.

Kwantlen apparently signed on the dotted line. Because a request for the amount the university has spent on lobbying over the past five years yielded annual outlays to Jiles’ firm in the range of $11,500 to $73,000, to a total of $177,000.

The original pitch was made to the external-relations director in the Kwantlen president’s office. But what adds a bit of torque to the issue is a minute from a 2010 board meeting, which notes that Jiles was also retained to work with the board’s compensation working group to figure out if executive compensation was fair.

The board member responsible throughout that period was Amrik Virk, who ended his service when he ran for the Liberals in 2013, won his election and was named advanced-education minister by Premier Christy Clark.

Close followers of the Kwantlen capers will recall that became problematic last spring, when the university’s practice of circumventing salary caps and guidelines for executive staff came to light courtesy of emails leaked to the NDP. Enough evidence came to light that the government was prompted to order a review by an assistant deputy minister, who confirmed the university had broken some rules.

Virk was not directly fingered for the monkey business, but later revelations in the fall only made it worse for him. There was evidence he was more directly involved in the end-runs and that the testimony he gave to the review while he was a cabinet minister wasn’t complete.

A followup report released in December made that clear, and Clark decided — without acknowledging why — to shuffle him out of advanced education and into the citizens’ services and technology portfolio.

She named Wilkinson to replace him, so he had the pleasure Monday of responding to the NDP’s case without knowing anything about it. He was reduced to lauding Kwantlen’s “entrepreneurial” spirit, which got one of the biggest laughs of the day.

The NDP figure the lobbyist’s relationship-building invoices amount to about $15,000 a handshake.

If these people would just learn how to shmooze for themselves, the university would have a bit more money to spend on students.

lleyne@timescolonist.com

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