Inside the Amrik Virk Kwantlen compensation probe: Documents shed new light on scandal
The sky above the capital is mostly cloudy and the temperature a coolish 11C. Inside a ministerial office at the provincial legislature, Robert Mingay, an assistant deputy minister, sits across from Amrik Virk, B.C.’s Minister of Advanced Education.chandigarh Updated: Jan 16, 2015 23:37 IST
The sky above the capital is mostly cloudy and the temperature a coolish 11C. Inside a ministerial office at the provincial legislature, Robert Mingay, an assistant deputy minister, sits across from Amrik Virk, B.C.’s Minister of Advanced Education.
The date is April 10, 2014 and Mingay, a well-respected civil servant, is about a month deep into an investigation concerning the suspicious executive compensation practices at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.
Public interest in a probe that involves a member of Premier Christy Clark’s inner circle has been high and Mingay has been hard at work. Only a few interviews remain, and Virk, who is dressed in a dark grey suit and a striped tie, is undoubtedly one of the most important interviewees on Mingay’s list.
An NDP bombshell
Weeks earlier, Mike de Jong, B.C.’s minister of finance, ordered Mingay to investigate the bombshell that NDP MLA David Eby had dropped in the legislature relating to secret salary bonuses awarded to two of KPU’s senior executives as far back as 2011. The secret bonuses, Eby alleged, were in clear violation of provincial reporting requirements and a blatant attempt to skirt provincial salary caps for executives.
At the time in question, Virk, a former Mountie, served as vice-chair on KPU’s board of directors and was also chair of the school’s human resources committee. Both were voluntary, unpaid positions.
The Opposition fingered Virk as a key player in the scheme. And in the weeks that followed, Eby kept the heat on, raising further questions relating to additional hidden raises, and even an abandoned plot to use money from the school’s foundation to pay the incoming president. Some of those questions were directly tied to an amended civil claim, in which Virk was named, that had been filed by a former KPU employee who was now suing the school for wrongful dismissal.
Mingay’s mandate, however, as outlined in a March 10 letter from de Jong, was to focus exclusively on the contracts awarded to Alan Davis, KPU’s president, and Anne Lavack, the school’s former vice-president and provost, and whether they were consistent with provincial guidelines. Mingay was ordered to determine what payments were made, whether they were disclosed, and whether disclosure and total compensation were in-line with provincial guidelines. Ultimately he found they were not.
As of that April 10 interview with Virk, Mingay had already conducted several interviews with KPU’s bigwigs. Further, he had amassed a pile of damning evidence, including an email that clearly stated members of a KPU contract committee, of which Virk was a member, had conspired to not report the details of the Davis contract to the Public Sector Employers’ Council (PSEC), the relevant government authority, as required.
Until then, Virk, MLA for Surrey-Tynehead, had deflected Eby’s attacks, suggesting the rookie MLA was on a fishing expedition. Faced with the Davis evidence, what would Virk say? What about the Lavack contract?
Mingay was about to find out.
Now, months on, the end result of Mingay’s investigation is well-documented in the final report he released last June. The specific details, however, of what questions were asked and who said what have been secret — but no longer.
Hundreds of pages of recently released documents, including Mingay’s interview notes, offer a unique behind-the-scenes glimpse of the process he undertook to reach his conclusions. Also included among the documents are some concerning discoveries Mingay made that didn’t make it into either his final report, or the add-on he would later release.
His interview notes with Virk, in particular, provide a sobering look at the conduct of an elected official, especially when compared with what was to be revealed months later. While the probe into the secret contracts relates to a time before Virk was in public office and was serving only as a volunteer, his standing on the day of the interview was as a cabinet minister.
“When you read the (FOI) documents that surround the event, you realize that Mr. Virk must have spent a lot of time thinking about how to phrase his answers to minimize his involvement and he must have known that he would have been protected,” said Eby. In Eby’s opinion, “the documents demonstrate that Amrik Virk is a dishonest politician. And they also illustrate for me, the remarkable effort gone to prevent that information from coming to light.”
The fault of others?
While Virk would admit to Mingay that he knew of the Davis contract, he denied any knowledge or recollection of the specifics of the Lavack contract. This, despite question after detailed question. Nothing, it seemed, refreshed his memory. And in some of his answers, he seemed to suggest that the contract, and its errors, had been the fault of others. In other answers, he said the compensation of anyone other than the president wasn’t part of his mandate.
(According to KPU’s board governance manual, one of the responsibilities of the school’s human resources committee is to recommend “to the Board KPU’s philosophy and guidelines for senior leadership compensation in consideration of Public Sector Employers’ Association (PSEC) guidelines.)
“Amrik does not recall any specifics. He may or may not have known about the pre-employment contract,” read a section of Mingay’s notes. The pre-employment contract was a way to skirt around compensation rules by paying the employee for contract work done before their official start.
Another technique was to pay overly-generous moving allowances.
“The HR Committee received information about HR issues but was not involved in the day to day function. The HR committee was not involved in vetting contracts for anyone but the president.”
Mingay further noted: “Amrik’s recollection is that Anne Lavack’s appointment was not reviewed by the HR committee. Amrik had no involvement after the board decision. Amrik does not recall the board chair having any role. Amrik does not recall the pre-employment contract because she did not report to the board. He is not aware of the deliverables required under the contract. He would have to review his notes which he no longer has access to.”
When told Lavack’s contract had not been reported to the Public Sector Employers’ Council as required, Virk acknowledged that KPU “should have been complying with the guidelines” but that the “minutiae of reporting did not come to the board” and that “the board expects it to be taken care of by the president and his staff,” according to the FOI documents, which were provided to The Province by the NDP.
Asked specifically about the HR committee’s terms of reference, reporting requirements and PSEC guidelines, Mingay noted some of the following answers:
At the time, the people below the president were not on the mind of the board; not prescriptive.
Amrik was not aware that Anne Lavack’s salary was not reported properly.
The president was expected to fulfil his responsibilities. It was a failure of process.
PSEC reporting was signed by the board chair (Gord Schoberg).
Executive limitations — the president reports on his limitation(s) and meet(s) those limitations
The board accepted because everything seemed OK. The president reported as much.
With regard to whether the chair of the HR committee and the HR committee should have known about the pre-employment agreement, Amrik stated that the HR committee is responsible for one employee (the president).
Kwantlen Polytechnic University compensation review by The Province
On the afternoon of Dec. 18, 2014, exactly one week before Christmas, Premier Christy Clark quietly moved Amrik Virk, her Minister of Advanced Education, to another portfolio. The news came in a sparsely-worded mid-afternoon press release. No explanation was offered, but political observers quickly linked it to Virk’s involvement in the executive compensation scandal at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. Weeks earlier, fresh evidence had emerged that contradicted the findings of a government-ordered investigation into the matter. In particular, it showed Virk had known more than was previously disclosed.
New details now offer a behind-the-scenes look at the investigative steps long-serving public servant Rob Mingay took in preparing his report. A massive freedom-of-information return provides, for the first time, a look at Mingay’s notes, including his interview with Virk. Also included in the hundreds of pages of documents are some startling findings that never made it into the final report. In the first of a two-part series, The Province invites readers to look behind the curtains of The Mingay Files.