Cloud over Kash Heed
embarrassing for Liberals

Top cop withdraws from debate
over complaints bill

Vaughn Palmer, Vancouver Sun, Oct. 28, 2009

There was an embarrassing moment for the B.C. Liberals the other day when Solicitor-General Kash Heed had to withdraw from further handling of legislation to toughen the police complaints process.

Not easy to recall the last time a cabinet member had to excuse himself from handling legislation within his ministerial bailiwick. Doubly embarrassing because the Liberals had promoted the ambitious former West Vancouver police chief Heed as a “star” candidate back in the spring election.

Heed had described the Police Amendment Act, Bill 7 on the legislative order paper for the fall session, as the key to his goal of creating “the most accountable police service for all of B.C.”

He’d scoffed at suggestions that shepherding the bill might place him in a conflict of interest, given two outstanding complaints against him dating back to his recent tenure with the force in West Van.

Still, the concern did not go away. The New Democratic Party Opposition went to the conflict of interest commissioner. The commissioner raised the issue with the government. And after some back-and-forth, Heed recused himself.

He tried to minimize the significance of the move in announcing his decision last Thursday afternoon in the legislature.

“While it is my strong belief that there are no legal impediments to me fulfilling my responsibilities with respect to Bill 7, I am anxious that attention not be diverted away from the important substantive provisions of this legislation,” said Heed, who was reading from a by-way-of-explanation letter he’d written to Conflict Commissioner Paul Fraser.

“For that reason and out of an abundance of caution, I believe it would be preferable for me to forgo further participation in the debate or votes that will take place with respect to Bill 7.”

Even as he denied any conflict, he acknowledged the possibility that others might see it differently, for he sought the conflict commissioner’s approval for his decision.

“I hope my suggested approach to this matter, guided as it is by my primary concern for preserving the integrity of this crucial piece of legislation, meets with your approval,” wrote Heed. “I am available to answer any additional questions or provide any further information you may require.”

The issue was scarcely as straightforward as he made out. The two complaints may, as he insists, lack substance. But the usual method for determining that is an investigation.

The complaints against Heed have never been subjected to thorough scrutiny because they were filed at about the time he left office. The police complaints commissioner currently lacks the power to investigate officers who resign or retire.

Heed himself tried to get the commissioner to tackle one of the complaints anyway, after details of it surfaced in news reports over the summer. But the deputy police complaints commissioner declined to proceed, ruling that the office lacked clear jurisdiction.

The new legislation would close the gap, at least in part. In future, a complaint would not automatically lapse once the officer in question left the force. But the legislation is not retroactive to the extent that would permit reactivation of the complaints against Heed.

And that was what prompted the New Democrats to complain about a possible conflict.

“I believe the solicitor-general is in a conflict of interest over this bill,” wrote Opposition house leader Mike Farnworth in a letter to conflict watchdog Fraser. “Given that a decision had to be made by the solicitor-general’s ministry whether or not to make the amendments to the bill retroactive, it is clear that the private interests of the member are entirely at play in the legislative debate over the bill.”

Moreover, Farnworth went on to note, the Opposition was planning to introduce amendments that would make the bill retroactive. There was surely no conflict-free ground for the solicitor-general on that issue.

I’m betting the latter argument was what led Heed to step aside, either at his own prompting or with a little encouragement from his friends.

With the top cop standing on the sidelines on his own legislation, the new police complaint legislation was steered through the house by Attorney-General Mike de Jong.

Debate wrapped up Tuesday, but not before the New Democrats moved their motion to make the key complaints procedure retroactive. The Liberals voted it down, which was not necessarily the biggest favour they could do for Heed.

He has complained bitterly about the way those complaints continue to hang over him, unresolved.

“There’s this very unfair cloud over my head and it’s been over my head for awhile,” he told reporters on the day the legislation was tabled. “It’s very, very unfair because I spent over 30 years in policing with the utmost integrity and I always called for more accountability, and I was open right from the start. I’ve taken full responsibility and I continue to take full responsibility.”

His frustration is understandable. But until those complaints are vetted independently and conclusively, the cloud will linger.

Blunders, disasters and scandal:
Kash Heed graces politics with police experience