The proud people of British Columbia have known their fair share of political scandals over the years.
They watched a Premier’s home being raided by police on live TV. They had another admit to accepting an envelope stuffed with $20,000 in $100 bills from a Taiwanese billionaire – a real estate transaction that would ultimately cost him his political career. A cabinet minister once showed up at the legislature with a black eye courtesy of the husband of a woman with whom he was spending time.
The legislature has come by its nickname, The Zoo, honestly.
But even by its high standards for the bizarre, the current scandal involving the Speaker of the legislature and a couple of its now suspended officials stands apart for being just plain weird and unusual.
For those needing a refresher, here is a recap:
Last fall, two of the legislature’s top unelected officials, clerk Craig James and Sergeant-at-Arms Gary Lenz, were marched off the premises under police escort. No one knew why, only that it was the result of some mysterious investigation conducted by Speaker Darryl Plecas and an aide, Alan Mullen. In January, Mr. Plecas released a 76-page report that detailed a litany of alleged spending abuses by the two officers.
The document suggested Mr. James and Mr. Lenz were gallivanting around the world on the pretense of official business, except there was more sightseeing going on than working meetings. It suggested the pair were responsible for hundreds of thousands of dollars in flagrant overspending, including $13,000 for a wood-splitter and carrying trailer that sat at Mr. James’s home.
Later the two men responded to the charges, suggesting most of the expenses had been approved by senior officials, including the Speaker himself. Mr. James said he bought the wood-splitter for the legislature in the event of some calamity, such as an earthquake, and the building found itself without power. The splitter could be used to cut wood for fire to keep warm. He insisted he was just taking care of it while a cement pad could be built at the legislature to properly store it.
Central to the entire drama has been the little known Mr. Mullen, an old friend of the Speaker who has served as a sort of amateur sleuth in this story. Mr. Mullen is Irish and loves to talk. In fact, you can’t get him to stop. The interviews he’s given have often been jaw-dropping, suggesting in one that people were going to go to jail as a result of stuff he and Mr. Plecas have dug up.
The entire matter is under investigation by the RCMP. Two special prosecutors have also been named to the case. A retired jurist is now looking into the whole mess as well, along with the provincial Auditor-General. Who knows, maybe CSIS will be called in next.
Anyway, Mr. Plecas demanded an opportunity to reply to the response of Mr. James and Mr. Lenz to his original report. He released that on Thursday and it included new allegations of abuses and deceptions. It suggested in one case that a trip to Seattle to take in a Major League Baseball game was disguised in an expense claim as a conference related to something called the Legislative Assemblies Business Continuity Network. In another instance, a whale-watching trip was billed as an “earthquake preparedness” expedition.
The fresh report included new information around the infamous wood-splitter, including photos that showed Mr. James had a cement pad installed on his property to store the mighty beast. If he was just holding it until a pad could be poured at the legislature, as he insisted, why did he have one installed at his home?
This may be the last report on this matter from Speaker Plecas. He has agreed to recuse himself, allowing all the various investigations under way to reach their own conclusions.
It seems certain, however, that we have not heard the last of this scandal – far from it. Both Mr. Mullen and Mr. Plecas have dropped enough hints that suggest there will be others caught up in this unseemly affair, including elected politicians, past and present.
A sense of entitlement has always wafted through the air at the B.C. legislature. It seems those days may be coming to a close. And careers are likely to be ruined as a result of it.