Be our guest at public-private diners

You should have been there—after all, you were paying.

It was June 23, 2005, at the Al Porto Ristorante on Water Street in Vancouver, according to receipts obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. A group of 17 had the set dinner for $52.95 each, and between them they drained five bottles of Wild Goose Pinot Gris, three of the Columbia Crest Merlot, two of Penfolds Chardonnay, and three of the d'Arenberg The Stump Jump. That's 13 bottles of wine for 17 people.

They also ordered a martini, a cosmopolitan, a rum, three bottles of beer, and a glass of the premium Scotch whisky Lagavulin. And they went through 13 bottles of San Pellegrino mineral water for $103.35. All told, taxpayers paid $1,567.11, including taxes and a $235 tip.

That works out to about $92 per person. If the government was going to treat each of B.C.'s four million residents to such a meal, it would cost about $368 million. Luckily for the taxpayer, such extravagances aren't for just anyone. No, the guests at the feast were all Partnerships British Columbia board members, staff, and other movers and shakers in the public-private partnership world.

A handwritten note accom ­anying the bill—also obtained under the FOI Act—says the guests included a P. Lefebvre from PPP Quebec, T. Varriano from Infrastructure Canada, J. McKendrick and A. Bindra from Public Infrastructure Ontario, B. Easton from B.C. Housing, and J. Peatch and D. Richmond from the Canadian Council for Public-Private Partner ­hips. Eugene Lysy, the deputy minister of economic development for the Yukon government, was there too. So was an Alberta Finance Ministry representative whose name is illegible.

The Partnerships B.C. representatives at the well-spirited dinner were board members Celia Courchene and Ellen Morfitt. The staff members are identified as “LB, SS, MM, GM, SH, Blain”. Senior staff at the Crown agency include: CEO Larry Blain; Suromitra Sanatani, then-vice-president of corporate and government relations (now a special advisor to the Ministry of Advanced Education); Mike Marasco, vice-president of partnerships development and delivery; Grant Main, vice-president of partnerships services; and then-senior vice-president Steve Hollett.

Blain—who earned $519,448 in salary and bonuses for the year ending March 31, 2006—picked up the bill, which he then claimed as an expense from Partnerships B.C., the Crown agency charged with promoting public-private partnerships. The Al Porto dinner was part of $45,325 in expenses Blain claimed in the 2005–06 fiscal year.

In March 2005, Blain had dinner in New York with Premier Gordon Campbell; his executive assistant, Lara Dauphinee; his press secretary, Mike Morton; and one Peter Restler. According to the Web site for the investment firm CAI Private Equity, it has a New York–based managing partner named Peter Restler who “was previously a special advisor to Vancouver-based Inland Natural Gas (now known as Terasen) in connection with its successful acquisition of the $741 million gas division of B.C. Hydro, a provincially-owned utility”.

Blain appears to have entertained the premier and other guests at Asiate, a Manhattan restaurant. All had the fixed menu, with a total bill to the B.C. taxpayers of $312.50 after exchange. Blain's bill did not include a tip.