Vander Zalm helped burnish his reputation by leading a successful campaign against the HST in 2010, but B.C. residents were reminded on Monday of the scandal that toppled him from office.
The suit was launched by former conflict of interest commissioner Ted Hughes, who claims Vander Zalm published defamatory statements attacking his reputation in a 2008 book called "Bill Vander Zalm: For the People."
Hughes' lawyer, Irwin Nathanson, told B.C. Supreme Court that he will be calling his client and former NDP premier Mike Harcourt, who succeeded Vander Zalm, to testify.
Court heard that in February 1991, Vander Zalm asked Hughes, then the acting conflict of interest commissioner, to conduct an inquiry into the 1990 sale of Vander Zalm's Fantasy Garden World theme park after allegations that the Taiwanese buyer had received favourable treatment.
Hughes concluded on April 2 that Vander Zalm had breached conflict of interest guidelines, prompting the Social Credit premier to resign immediately.
Hughes, now 84, said he read Vander Zalm's book in the summer of 2009 and was shocked and depressed that he'd been painted as someone who conducted an unfair inquiry.
"What is being said, if you like, is that I conspired with others to write a report that would condemn Mr. Vander Zalm so that I could get the NDP on my side to support my bid to become the conflict of interest commissioner," he said.
"I've tried to spend my life honestly and with honour and to be accused by one who held the prime office in this province, its No. 1 citizen for five years, who says he saw me in that light, as that kind of person, it's difficult for me."
Hughes said he decided not to take legal action because the book wasn't getting any public attention with Vander Zalm out of office.
But in September 2010, when Hughes turned on his TV and saw the former premier being interviewed about his anti-HST stance and his book being promoted, Hughes said he had to file a lawsuit.
"That was the triggering point for me," he said.
"Some day, historians are going to follow through this history of British Columbia and they're going to try to make an assessment of that period of time and I have come to this court because I feel that I'm entitled to some comment, whether I'm right or whether I'm wrong, so that history doesn't necessarily record what Mr. Vander Zalm has said about me because I find it so depressing, untrue and unfair."
Book read aloud in court
In his book, portions of which were read in court, Vander Zalm said he should never have agreed to the inquiry.
The passages are also outlined in Hughes' statement of claim, filed in October 2010.
"I now know this was the biggest mistake of my entire life," Vander Zalm wrote.
Court heard that in the book, he said that one friend told him: "Hughes will put down one government and reap the benefits for another," while someone else said he should cancel the inquiry.
Vander Zalm wrote his second-biggest mistake was that "I allowed myself to be set up," saying Hughes could become the prosecutor, judge and jury against him and that the inquiry findings were politically motivated.
"I asked myself, `Is this really all for real or could this have been organized in this way?"'
Hughes, a former Saskatchewan judge and deputy attorney general in British Columbia, was appointed the conflict of interest commissioner in May 1991 by Vander Zalm's successor Rita Johnston.
Hughes also served as the conflict commissioner in the Yukon and the Northwest Territories and is currently working for the Manitoba government conducting an inquiry into a child's death.
Vander Zalm to testify
Vander Zalm's lawyer, Frank Potts, said he will call only the former premier to testify for the defence.
In his statement of defence filed in December, 2010, Vander Zalm denied most of Hughes' claim. He also said Hughes had taken the book passages out of context.
"Further, all of the comments would be understood by a reasonable person as comment and not imputations of fact," the statement of defence said.
Vander Zalm also argued that if the comments are concluded to be defamatory, "the comments were fair comments made on a matter of public interest," and as such they were "made and published on an occasion of qualified privilege.
"Therefore, the defendant is immune from the plaintiff's action," the statement of defence reads.
Hughes said Vander Zalm asked him to conduct the inquiry after then-NDP leader Mike Harcourt said that was an option for the premier, who was being accused of mixing his private affairs with his public duties in relation to the sale of his theme park.
If the jury at the civil trial finds Vander Zalm guilty of defamation, they will also be asked to award Hughes damages, if any.
Vander Zalm privately published his autobiography and court heard he distributed it to 22 libraries and sold about 1,000 copies.
After his resignation, Vander Zalm wanted a judicial review of Hughes' findings but a judge said B.C. Supreme Court did not have jurisdiction to deal with the issue.