Edit: Taxes shouldn’t pay for lawsuit

If Athana Mentzelopoulos wants to sue NDP education critic Rob Fleming for defamation, that’s her business — completely her business. The public should not have to pay her legal costs in this case.

Mentzelopoulos is deputy minister in the B.C. Ministry of Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training who was named in a fundraising email Fleming sent in July that sought to raise $10,000 to “help us support B.C. teachers.”

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Fleming noted that “while Christy Clark can’t find a single new penny to help kids in B.C. schools, she’s found plenty of money to give to her friends.” The email said Mentzelopoulos had been Premier Christy Clark’s bridesmaid, and had been awarded a $30,000 pay raise the previous year, “on top of the $217,000 she was already making.”

On Aug. 15, Mentzelopoulos filed a defamation lawsuit in B.C. Supreme Court, accusing the Victoria-Swan Lake MLA of making false and malicious statements about her salary and her friendship with Clark.

Mentzelopoulos’s statement of claim said the comments in the email were understood to convey a “dishonest scheme, cronyism and corruption” and served “a collateral purpose” of harming the premier and her government.” The document said Fleming aggravated the harm caused to Mentzelopoulos by refusing to issue a retraction and remove the remarks from the Internet.

Last week, Fleming filed a defence that said he was merely fulfilling his duties as an Opposition critic, offering fair comment and communicating matters of public interest.

We’ll leave it to the lawyers to sort out what was implied and what was inferred. But we shouldn’t have to pay those lawyers.

Regulations under the Financial Administration Act allow a government employee’s legal costs to be covered by public funds under certain circumstances, including “the need to rehabilitate the employee’s usefulness for employment or appointment … [and] the need to restore or preserve the integrity of the employee’s office or position of employment or appointment.”

When the lawsuit was filed, Mentzelopoulos’s lawyer, David Wotherspoon, said her legal fees were not being paid by the province. “Athana commenced this without a view to having her fees paid,” he told a reporter.

Yet Mentzelopoulos has since applied for indemnification and the Justice Ministry decided she’s eligible to have her legal costs covered.

It was not good form politically for Fleming to attack a deputy minister on points that have nothing to do with performance. He definitely was not standing on higher ground by noting that Mentzelopoulos was a bridesmaid at Clark’s 1996 wedding. People form many friendships over the years; friendships endure and there’s nothing sinister in that, unless hard evidence proves otherwise.

But Mentzelopoulos also passed up the opportunity to take the high road. She or Clark could simply have issued a statement saying Mentzelopoulos was hired on her merits and is performing her duties well. Or, even better, they could simply have said Fleming’s baseless insinuations were politically motivated and not worthy of an answer.

Perhaps Fleming, whose costs will be covered by his party, could have found a tactful way of apologizing without losing too many political points. But Mentzelopoulos is a veteran senior civil servant with an annual salary approaching a quarter of a million dollars — she should have a thick enough skin to be able to shrug off Fleming’s slights.

The regulations concerning legal costs for civil servants are necessary — no one should be able to make malicious and groundless accusations against bureaucrats with impunity — but it’s absurd that this political tit-for-tat should incur public expense.

This spite fight would be more easily settled if both sides were required to pay their own costs.

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