Editorial: Don’t minimize Virk’s errors

Amrik Virk’s participation in a salary-fudging scheme at Kwantlen Polytechnic University was a serious breach of ethics. It cannot be dismissed as an unintentional error or lapse of judgment.

The gravity of the situation is compounded by the fact the Virk was then a senior officer in the RCMP, sworn to uphold the law. He is now minister of advanced education and should be an example of ethical behaviour.

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Virk was a member of the board of Kwantlen, which has campuses in Surrey, Richmond and Langley, when the board devised a way to get around provincial salary caps in hiring new executives. The university failed to disclose a pair of pre-employment contracts, each worth $50,000, as part of two executives’ total compensation, a government review says. Instead, the contracts were reported as payments to suppliers in a separate filing.

Virk has confirmed that he knew about one of the pre-employment contracts to current president Alan Davis in 2012, and also knew that it was not reported as part of the president’s total compensation.

This isn’t a case of inadvertently neglecting to follow procedures, it was a deliberate and repeated effort to contravene government policy and to hide the fact.

The issue was brought to the fore in the last legislative sitting by NDP MLA David Eby, who began asking questions about Kwantlen’s hiring practices and Virk’s role in them. Virk was dismissive, saying the questions were disrespectful of volunteers on post-secondary boards and that the Opposition was engaging in a fishing expedition. He spouted words about government transparency, even as he was being opaque.

But Finance Minister Mike de Jong listened, then ordered an investigation, which substantiated the NDP’s accusations and found that Virk had been part of “failing to comply or circumventing the reporting requirements.”

Virk says he is humbled, but contrition is an ill-fitting suit on a person forced to wear it. It looks a lot more like “sorry I got caught” than “sorry I did it.”

No one would suggest Virk gained personally from the coverup. He and fellow board members undoubtedly had the university’s best interests in mind, but that’s a myopic perspective. A university should be a place of ideals, and sacrificing principle for expediency isn’t one of those ideals.

There’s also no suggestion that Virk initiated the inappropriate actions — he was only one member of the board — but he is one member who should have spoken up, quickly and firmly, as soon as he knew someone was trying to pull the wool over the government’s eyes. He could have said: “This isn’t right. Don’t do it.”

As scandals go, this is a small one. But it’s not the amount of money that disturbs, it’s the notion that integrity is something that can be adjusted to fit the situation. It’s a bit of grit in the gears of government, contributing to the erosion of public trust.

This shouldn’t be a government-tumbler or a career-killer. In fact, it could result in improvements, as de Jong says he is going to ensure members of boards such as Kwantlen’s become more aware of their obligations for disclosure and transparency.

But always in the minds of those board members will be how lightly Virk got off.

In the good old days of parliamentary tradition, politicians caught in controversies such as this one offered resignations from cabinet as a matter of honour. Sometimes the resignations were accepted, sometimes not, but it was a grand gesture that could help clear the air.

A modicum of finger-wagging is a poor substitute.

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