Caucus workers at legislature crafted attack on Dix

A Liberal Party attack website aimed at NDP leader Adrian Dix was crafted by government employees at the B.C. legislature under the watchful eye of the Premier’s Office and a Christy Clark loyalist, a series of government emails obtained by The Province reveal.

Launched by the B.C. Liberal Party in October 2011, the CantAffordDix.ca website featured aggressive assaults on Dix’s character and unflattering photos of the NDP leader. The site called Dix “Pinocchio” and the “chief architect” of B.C.’s “nightmare” ’90s.

Featuring a smashed piggy bank as a central piece of art, the site also included a legal notice stating it was produced by the Liberal Party of B.C.

But emails leaked to The Province show the site was in reality conceived and developed by government employees, who used a taxpayer-financed computer network to brainstorm the project and, later, to liaise with the B.C. Liberal Party.

“Hi Team, What do you think of ‘TheRealDix.ca Reckless, Dishonest, Secret’ for the website we discussed?” Thomas Marshall, then a communications officer with the Liberal government caucus, emailed to a select circle of government staffers on Aug. 23, 2011.

The email was time-stamped at 2:58 p.m. and sent from Marshall’s work email account.

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The recipients included two caucus research staff, a senior issues management co-ordinator with the Premier’s Office, and Don Millar, a close friend of Christy Clark who served as communications chair for her successful leadership campaign.

“How about CantAffordDix.ca” wrote Blair Phelps, a caucus researcher, 12 minutes later from his government email account.

“Dixhonest.ca” offered Spencer Sproule, then a senior issues management co-ordinator with the Premier’s Office, from a private email account.

“I like all of them so far,” wrote Katy Randall, a researcher, from her government email address. “Here’s my attempt: DixcomfortingFacts.ca”

Consensus was reached about an hour and 20 minutes later when Marshall declared Phelps’s contribution the “winner.”

“After some discussion it sounds like CantAffordDix.ca is the winner,” Marshall wrote in an email time-stamped 4:20 p.m. “The RealDix.ca is too suggestive and DixHonest.ca although clever maybe (sic) misinterpreted by people that he is honest.

“If we have no complaints I will get started putting together a site map and wireframe with the ideas we have discussed.”

Hours after the initial Aug. 23, 2011, email was sent, Millar – who currently holds a lucrative contract with Government Communications and Public Engagement allowing him to bill up to $10,000 a month for advisory services – added Mike Wilson to the correspondence chain.

A former vice-president of the communications firm that helped Clark win the party’s leadership, Wilson was at the time on contract with the B.C. Liberal Party for “various” communications duties.

“This is good, adding Mike Wilson so he can get the domain in order,” Millar wrote. “Thomas, maybe you can develop a schedule for this project.”

According to the five-page Government of B.C. Standards of Conduct, caucus employees are free to belong to a political party and offer support to candidates but are not supposed to engage in “political party activities” during working hours.

The policy states that if engaging in political activities, employees “must be able to retain the perception of impartiality in relation to their duties and responsibilities.”

“Employees’ political party activities must be clearly separated from activities related to their employment,” the policy reads. “Employees must not engage in political party activities during working hours or use government facilities, equipment or resources in support of these activities.”

Primrose Carson, executive director of the government caucus, acknowledged that the employees’ actions were a breach of these standards of conduct. But she denied that a government computer was used to construct the site. She said it was constructed on Marshall’s personal laptop on his own time. The only thing the employees did wrong was use their government email accounts to communicate on party business, she said.

“You can’t be doing party work here. For sure, I would agree with that,” Carson said, adding the staffers were given a verbal reminder of what constitutes appropriate conduct.

“Some conversations took place using a government email account during work hours. They shouldn’t be doing that. And this is a nice reminder for them.”

“I take the situation quite seriously,” added Ben James, director for government caucus communications. “We’re here to represent the B.C. Liberal MLAs, and this is something I don’t practise. And it’s not something that’s happening while I’m here. This is a very serious situation for me.”

Both Carson and James were not with government caucus at the time.

Asked about the emails, NDP critic Carole James said they provide yet another example of the government’s obsession with political gamesmanship.

Two weeks ago, an internal government document was leaked to the media that suggested a Liberal consultation committee formed to look into the future of Burnaby Hospital was motivated exclusively by a desire to acquire an NDP-held riding.

“Instead of using resources for governing, for getting down and doing policy work and focusing on the things that this public wants the government to look at, this government is spending all of their time and energy trying to get re-elected,” Carole James said. “If the premier wonders why she is not connecting with the public, to me this is just one more example of why.”

On Aug. 31, 2011, Marshall sent out an email at 4:58 p.m. from his work account to the “team” under the subject heading “CantAffordDix” advising them that design on the site had been completed.

By this time, Shane Mills, director of issues management in the Premier’s Office, had been added to the thread. The message was sent to his private Gmail account, the documents show.

The final email is sent out by Marshall on Sept. 9, 2011, at 11:50 a.m., advising that he was waiting “for a server from the Party to load the site to.” Once the server was provided, the site could go live in a day, he wrote.

The site was officially launched on Oct. 25, 2011.

In December 2011, the Liberal Party launched a second attack ad against Dix. A third was launched this past September.

Marshall is now a communications co-ordinator with the Premier’s Office. He did not respond to an interview request by The Province.