By Sunny Dhillon/theglobeandmail.com
Wally Oppal was attorney-general when B.C. opened its Civil Forfeiture Office. The former judge has since left politics and returned to law, where he’s heard concerns about the fairness of the process.
And, Mr. Oppal said, he would support a review of the Civil Forfeiture Act and the effect it has had.
“I think it’s always healthy to take a review and look at it from a global perspective. Let’s step back and see how it’s been operating, particularly in terms of fairness and how can we improve not only the act, but the way it’s been executed,” he said.
Mr. Oppal was one of more than two dozen people interviewed by The Globe and Mail during its months-long investigation of B.C.’s Civil Forfeiture Office.
A 4,000-word piece published over the weekend noted the office has rapidly increased the number of files it accepts and the amount of money it brings in. At $41-million, B.C. has already seized more property than Ontario, despite opening its office three years later.
But as the scale of the forfeitures has grown, so too have questions about fairness, public interest and transparency. The office was created to fight organized crime, but has come to have a wider reach. Critics have questioned the public interest of some of the cases it takes on and said many cannot afford to fight their case.
Ninety-nine per cent of the people the office targets settle on terms favourable to the office.
Mr. Oppal was non-committal when asked if he himself believes the system is unfair. He said the process has had some unintended consequences – fewer cases involving marijuana grow-ops are going into the court system, he said, because the province has focused on seizing property instead of prosecuting offenders. (Though Mr. Oppal was attorney-general when the office opened, the file fell under the solicitor-general’s purview. The two positions have since been merged into one, under the title of justice minister.)
Very little is publicly released about the Civil Forfeiture Office. It has not been audited or formally reviewed. Two years ago, it upgraded its physical security and increased the confidentiality of its employees.
Exactly why is not known, and the fact the B.C. government will not disclose who works there – unlike Ontario – remains a sticking point for those who say the office lacks transparency.
“Nobody’s against security, but with justification for its needs,” said Micheal Vonn, policy director with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. “The question is, what is the need? And if you haven’t justified it, you can’t just paint a sign that says, ‘Well, it’s for security.’”
Justice Minister Suzanne Anton and the office’s executive director, Phil Tawtel, in a joint interview would not say why security and confidentiality was increased.
Ms. Anton said it’s “not particularly relevant” who works at the office.
“What’s important is the head of it, the director, which is Phil, and the person ultimately responsible, who’s myself,” she said.
Mr. Tawtel took over as executive director after Rob Kroeker left in the fall of 2012 for a job with a gaming corporation. A Google search for Mr. Tawtel’s name turns up sporadic news stories, but he is not regularly interviewed nor listed as the executive director on the office’s website. The location of the office is not known – the address given is that of a Victoria post-office box.
A 60-page Ministry of Justice report – written in February, 2012 but released last year through freedom of information – assessed the security and safety of the Civil Forfeiture Office. It sparked the changes.
Much of the report, however, was redacted prior to release and a specific threat or incident was not mentioned.
Although it considers it an “unlikely occurrence,” the report said all staff should be aware of bomb threat response procedures.
Ms. Anton said it will ultimately be B.C.’s information and privacy commissioner who decides whether the names of people who work at the Civil Forfeiture Office should be made public.
Michael McEvoy, the deputy privacy commissioner, said it will likely be months before a decision is released.
Blair Suffredine, a former B.C. Liberal member of the legislature who’s also a lawyer and has been critical of some of the cases the office takes on, nonetheless questioned whether the information about staff needs to be made public.
“What would it do for me as a citizen? And is it really worth the risk that we might be putting somebody’s life in jeopardy?” he asked.