News / Vancouver

Conflict of great interest: New York Times reporter stands by story on B.C. ‘Kafkaesque’ political donations

His journalism called ‘laughable’ by province’s Deputy Premier, Dan Levin sat down with Metro to answer his critics, and explain why we should all be concerned.

B.C. Premier Christy Clark in a file photo.

The Canadian Press

B.C. Premier Christy Clark in a file photo.

New York Times reporter Dan Levin never expected his visit to British Columbia to earn him rebuke from the province’s leaders.

But that’s what happened after the newspaper published his story “British Columbia: The ‘Wild West’ of Canadian Political Cash” on Friday.

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Levin tied together previously reported details about Premier Christy Clark’s $50,000 stipend from BC Liberal donations; that B.C. Conflict of Interest Commissioner Paul Fraser’s law firm donated to the party the same day as a Paul Fraser (he denied it was him); and that Fraser’s son, a former business associate of Clark’s ex-husband, is now a deputy minister in her administration.

All of it, the government said, is legal. Deputy Premier Rich Coleman blasted Levin’s reporting, calling his story “laughable” and criticizing the American outlet.

“We go out and work very hard to raise money and make those connections,” he told reporters on Monday. “I do find it a bit rich when they’ve just both spent about a billion dollars to win the presidency in the United States.”

Dan Levin, a New York Times reporter on Canada.

Contributed

Dan Levin, a New York Times reporter on Canada.

Metro sat down with Levin in Vancouver. Here are excerpts of our interview.

Metro: What made you look into B.C.'s political funding?

Dan Levin: Obviously political financing is a hot topic in the U.S., certainly with conflicts of interest with Donald Trump, it's a bipartisan concern.

I was shocked that this was happening in Canada, I think Americans would be shocked, and frankly I think Canadians would be shocked too. No elected official in the U.S. is allowed to get a stipend; that would be bribery.

I lived in China for seven-and-a-half years; in China or Russia this would just be called 'corruption' or 'nepotism.' But here, it's just ‘legal.’ The idea that a Conflict of Interest Commissioner who's never found anybody in violation of conflict of interest (rules) in all his many years, whose son works in the government he's meant to rule on — it seems like a Kafkaesque dystopian nightmare of shady politics and conflict of interest.

What do you say to people who say this is legal — they're just following the rules?

When you look at other provinces in Canada, much of this is completely unacceptable and prohibited. I find it really confusing, dismaying and horrifying even that so much of this is allowed to happen. If you're just a regular person in this province who doesn't have access to tens of thousands of dollars to get face-time with an elected official, then you're at a disadvantage.

Some people are maligning you as a foreign outsider coming here and meddling.

For them to say I'm a 'foreigner,' just compare what's going on here with the federal level at the Canadian government — where most of this would be prohibited. And it's not just about conflict of interest, but about perceived conflicts of interest. This really is not a question of partisanship.

I don't have a dog in this fight. I'm not Canadian, I'm not voting, I don't live here, I don't care. I just see this as a basic democracy issue.

What's the reaction been like? It's taken over political Twitter, but how have you been received?

The vast majority of feedback that I've gotten is from Canadians or British Columbians, and they're appalled … I've only got about two nasty emails.

What about Deputy Premier Rich Coleman's remarks that your reporting was ‘laughable’ and essentially shoddy?

There was no shoddy reporting. It was literally just based on facts … These ministers, deputy ministers and other officials in the government who are saying the story is 'laughable' and this isn't an issue — they're profiting from a system that would be seen as completely corrupt elsewhere in Canada.

I don't want to be partisan here. The facts speak for themselves. I'm just laying the facts out. The only thing that's 'laughable' is making jokes about this, because it's really not funny.

Coleman claimed one of your central facts, that Commissioner Paul Fraser was a donor to the BC Liberals, was completely untrue.

Paul Fraser's law firm also donated to the BC Liberal party, according to government records, on the same day that Paul Fraser did; and his son also donated. At this point, they seem kind of desperate to direct the spotlight away from giving the elected leader of this province a top-up of money coming from pooled political donations, which plenty of people find objectionable.

Frankly, even if you took that out (of the story), we're talking about a walking, talking conflict of interest — who is the Conflict of Interest Commissioner. People's heads explode seeing all these details put together.

How can something like this be unquestioned for so long?

But it has been questioned. There has been great reporting by Canadian media who've looked at this.

The fact that the New York Times is looking at us has made you a bit of a celebrity here.

The New York Times looks at the whole world. It's a free press. There are amazing things about Canada, but unfortunately what's happening in B.C. is not one of them. Checks and balances are important, and hopefully this will spur British Columbians and other Canadians to take a closer look at how their governments behave.

—with files from Jen St. Denis.