British Columbia’s Auditor-General has found “a number of weaknesses and gaps” in spending oversight for top officers at the legislature that allowed for hundreds of thousands of dollars in questionable expenses to go unchecked.
Carol Bellringer released her report into the Offices of the Speaker, Clerk and Sergeant-at-Arms on Thursday, finding expense policies and practices were either inadequate or not followed; violations in purchasing-card usage; and no effective mechanism to report violations to the Legislative Assembly Management Committee (LAMC).
Ms. Bellringer emphasized that the review was not a financial audit but an effort to inform the Legislative Assembly on its financial processes and practices. She stopped short of ruling out any instances of fraud.
“I’m being a little cautious in coming straight out and saying, ‘There was no fraud,’ because we can’t be absolute in making that statement,” she said. “But there was nothing that we identified that we said, ‘Gee, this better be brought to an authority.’ ”
Speaker Darryl Plecas spearheaded the very public removal of the legislature’s then-clerk and sergeant-at-arms last fall after secretly undertaking an investigation into their spending. Then Clerk of the House, Craig James, retired in May. The Sergeant-at-Arms, Gary Lenz, remains on leave pending the outcome of investigations by the RCMP and the Auditor-General.
Mr. Plecas had said he and special adviser Alan Mullen would resign if an audit didn’t prompt public outrage.
“I am completely confident – completely confident – that those audits will show that we have a lot of work to do here,” he told an all-party financial management committee last December. “And if the outcome of those audits did not outrage the public, did not outrage taxpayers, did not make them throw up, I will resign as Speaker, and Mr. Mullen will resign as well.”
Ms. Bellringer’s audit spanned the period from April 1, 2016, to Dec. 31, 2018, and looked at more than 4,700 transactions totalling $2.2-million.
Among items flagged: $56,641 in travel expenses that Mr. James approved for himself; $20,093 in artwork; and $18,783 in gifts, including three jade bear sculptures totalling $1,428.45.
The audit also identified $17,222 in clothing purchases, including a $1,116 tuxedo, but noted the records lacked details about the items and that the existing policy does not clarify what type of clothing is appropriate to expense.
The audit found that travel expenses for Mr. Plecas’s office tripled to $60,947 in 2018-19 from $19,888 – an increase that Ms. Bellringer could not explain.
“All of the issues we found could have been mitigated if the Legislative Assembly had clearly assigned responsibility for ensuring that policies are being consistently followed, and that any significant or systemic breaches of policy are being reported to an appropriate authority,” Ms. Bellringer said.
Nine recommendations include creating a comprehensive policy framework to govern both financial practices and how policies are to be authorized; a comprehensive travel policy including documentation of travel purpose and options chosen; and that the Legislative Assembly ensure appropriate expense authorization and review.
Mr. Plecas did not respond to an interview request on Thursday, but said in a statement that Ms. Bellringer’s audit is an important step forward on the path to reform, and that the Legislative Assembly accepts all recommendations.
“The LAMC established a work plan on urgent reforms, and progress has already been made by the committee and the acting clerk on many audit recommendations,” the statement read.
“On my instructions, new policies on employee travel, uniforms and gifts and honoraria have been explicitly extended to my office. The full implementation of all audit report recommendations will be completed in the months ahead.”
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