BY MICHAEL SMYTH, THE PROVINCE SEPTEMBER 1, 2011 3:01 AM
Wally Oppal, head of the public inquiry into the Pickton serial killings, has been accused of being biased about the case.
Photograph by: Gerry Kahrmann - PNG, The Province
Wally Oppal is under increasing pressure to resign as head of the public inquiry into the Willy Pickton serial killings.
That's if the government doesn't fire him first over controversial comments Oppal made on the case that triggered accusations of bias.
Oppal appears to be digging in and standing his ground, at least for now. But this one could get uglier, and I don't think he can survive as commissioner.
It all started with a public letter Oppal issued in June, demanding the B.C. government pay for more lawyers at his inquiry. The letter contained an allegation that the Crown's failure to proceed with charges against Pickton in 1997 - when he was arrested for stabbing a prostitute - caused the deaths of more missing women.
Then Oppal left a voice mail for then-attorney-general Barry Penner, alleging that police ignored complaints about women disappearing from the streets.
The comments understandably angered the cops and the Crown, who think Oppal has already decided they screwed up the worst serialmurder case in Canadian history - all before Oppal has heard a single scrap of evidence at his inquiry.
I'm told Penner believed Oppal should have been fired back in July. The government appointed Oppal to head the public inquiry and could just as easily rescind the appointment.
But Premier Christy Clark, I'm told, has typically wavered on the point. She's worried the government would be seen as protecting the Crown and the police if they sacked Oppal.
Clark also likes Oppal, as many people do. Oppal's personal charm has helped him wriggle out of trouble before when his legendary motormouth got him in trouble.
But, this time, Wally may have gone too far. The government sent a letter to Oppal in July, pointing out his comments left him wide open to accusations of bias.
Oppal responded with a defiant letter of his own - sent to the government by his commission's lead counsel, Art Vertlieb - that angered the government even more.
The government and Oppal both refuse to release the letters publicly. But I'm told the government believes Vertlieb's letter contains even more evidence of bias.
Here's the thing to keep in mind: Oppal could very well be right that the cops and Crown dropped the ball on the Pickton case. There's already plenty of evidence that the case was a monumental screw-up by authorities.
But Oppal's comments are a brutal blunder for a former judge and attorney-general to make - and he knows it himself. That's why he issued a public statement on Monday insisting he hasn't prejudged the case.
But other loose-tongued commissioners have made similar mistakes - and paid the price.
John Gomery, head of the inquiry into the federal sponsorship scandal, was famously sued for bias by former prime minister Jean Chretien. Chretien won, and Gomery's findings against him were struck down.
The head of the public inquiry into Canada's involvement in Somalia was also successfully sued for bias.
The government is well aware of these precedents and has an alarming legal opinion about Oppal's comments. Many in the government are hoping Oppal resigns.
But Oppal is a stubborn fellow. And he's a making a tonne of money on this shindig - $1,500 a day as commissioner. He may dig in and fight - but I personally think he should resign now, before things get even messier.
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