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Caucus staff crosses the partisan line

There has always been a grey area between partisan politicking and straightforward government duties, as far as caucus staff are concerned. In theory, they're hired to support elected politicians who are doing good work for the people they represent.

There has always been a grey area between partisan politicking and straightforward government duties, as far as caucus staff are concerned.

In theory, they're hired to support elected politicians who are doing good work for the people they represent.

When politicians' thoughts turn to other things, such as advancing their own party's interests, the idea is that the party steps up to take over the partisan duties. Particularly if it involves attacking the other guy.

It's a very fluid situation, however. Sometimes when the urge strikes to launch a partisan attack, it's hard to resist the impulse to lean on caucus staff to accomplish the mission. So people occasionally tiptoe over the line.

But a trail of emails from a year ago obtained by The Province's Cassidy Olivier shows the B.C. Liberals didn't just edge over the line. They piled into a bus and drove miles offside when it comes to inappropriate use of government staff.

The emails reveal that support staff who were on the government payroll and supposedly doing non-partisan work spent a fair bit of time putting together an attack website aimed at discrediting NDP leader Adrian Dix.

It included a notice saying it was produced by the B.C. Liberal Party. But the emails show a lot of the work on the site was actually done by caucus staff on government time.

Then-communications officer Thomas Marshall pitched "TheRealDix.ca" to a number of staff members as the name "for the website we discussed."

The email was sent during office hours on a workday, from his work account. The recipients included two research staff, an issues management co-ordinator and Don Millar, an adviser to Premier Christy Clark who worked on her leadership campaign and is on a contract retainer with the premier's office.

The group came up with "Dixhonest.ca" and DixComfortingfacts.ca" before "CantAffordDix.ca" was picked as the winner.

Marshall concluded the exchanges with: "I will get started putting together a site map and wireframe [mock-up] with the ideas we have discussed."

Millar later asked Marshall to develop a schedule for the project, which conceivably involved a few more hours of government time.

Just over two weeks after the initial email, the project appeared to be completed, with a note from Marshall about waiting to load the site from via a server from the B.C. Liberal Party.

The site launched in October 2011, although the address now redirects to riskydix.ca.

Current directors of the Liberals caucus staff say this isn't happening any more. Staff have been reminded of the boundaries.

But you have to wonder, given what's on another anti-Dix website the B.C. Liberals maintain.

Over at dixshiddenplan.ca, there is another series of urgent warnings about what a risky character the Opposition leader is.

One of them is in the form of a featured article called "What the NDP Doesn't Want You To Know."

And the author of the piece is right there in the headline - it's "By B.C. Government Caucus."

It's very unlikely an elected MLA sat down and wrote the piece. Given their track record, it's much more conceivable the same taxpayer-paid bunch that started cantafforddix.ca worked on that piece as well. It accuses the Opposition of trying to hide assorted facts about their position on tolls, secret-ballot union votes and the Northern Gateway pipeline.

Much of the site is devoted to an intermittently amusing game the Liberals played earlier this year, called searching for Dix's hidden agenda.

They produced a series of videos of Liberal MLAs out looking for the plan. (It included Rob Howard hunting around a museum in Russia.)

The Liberal caucus quite openly admitted to pressing government staff into service. Saying people need to know where he stands, the site states: "That's why B.C. Liberal interns are fanning out across British Columbia to find Dix's hidden plan, and we want your help."

Clark has shown a penchant since winning the B.C. Liberal leadership for going negative in a big way on opponents like Dix and B.C. Conservative leader John Cummins. She wasn't likely directly involved in the websites.

But she set the tone, which encouraged the party to ignore the line that used to divide caucus work from partisan hackery.

lleyne@timescolonist.com