Two suspended officials at British Columbia’s legislature now face an independent misconduct review as well as an ongoing RCMP investigation.
Members of the all-party Legislative Assembly Management Committee voted unanimously Thursday to appoint a top legal official to determine whether clerk Craig James and sergeant-at-arms Gary Lenz breached their administrative duties.
Lenz and James have been suspended with pay since November after members of the legislature learned of an RCMP investigation and the appointment of two special prosecutors.
A 76-page report last month by Speaker Darryl Plecas outlined allegations of spending abuses by James and Lenz that included lavish foreign trips, clothing perks and topped up retirement and vacation pay outs.
“I think we have a path forward,” said Plecas after the committee meeting. “I’m extremely happy of the decision to have a jurist who will do an independent review. I’m assuming that’s going to be a rather quick path and we’ll have to see where it all lands.”
James and Lenz have denied any wrongdoing and responded in writing earlier to the allegations.
The committee voted unanimously Thursday to publicly release a second report by Plecas that responds to James and Lenz.
“The responses from Mr. James and Mr. Lenz attempt to create a contest of evidence between me and them, but that is not what this is about,” says the second Plecas report.
Plecas’s report says his reports are supported by the accounts of more than a dozen witnesses who worked with Lenz and James at the legislature for years.
“Why are these positions so lacking in accountability and oversight compared to the conduct of employees and officials working elsewhere in government?” says the report. “Why are these officers travelling all over the world like dignitaries, spending enormous amounts of money and justifying it all by their bare assurances that the events were useful?”
Plecas is chairman of the eight-member, all-party committee that oversees management at the legislature, which has a budget of $83 million.
The legislature’s three house leaders — New Democrat Mike Farnworth, Liberal Mary Polak and Green Sonia Furstenau — attended a joint news conference at the end of the committee meeting.
“All three parties around that table take this issue very seriously,” said Farnworth. “We take the institution very seriously and we worked together to come up with a way forward.”
The committee also voted to appoint auditor general Carol Bellringer to conduct a full audit of the legislature’s finances. The committee voted late last year to assign that work to an outsider auditor, bypassing Bellringer.
Last November, the members of the legislature voted unanimously to put Lenz and James on administrative leave after learning of an RCMP investigation.
The members also learned two special prosecutors were appointed last October to provide legal assistance and advice to the RCMP in relation to an “investigation being conducted into the activities of senior staff at the B.C. legislature.”
Lenz and James were escorted from the legislature by security officials.
Lenz and James provided written responses earlier this month to the Speaker’s first report that alleged spending abuses on trips, expenses and legislature items, including alcohol and a wood splitter and trailer.
The report also alleged inappropriate retirement and vacation pay outs.
“The report goes out of its way to smear my character,” James says in a 24-page response. “It contains opinions and innuendo which are neither accurate, nor fair. It attributes statements to me which I never made, and conduct in which I never engaged.”
Lenz says in his 62-page response the expenses he charged were legitimate and reasonable. He says every trip was for business purposes and he flew economy class and the legislature did not pay for his wife when she joined him.
“The trips that I took were not boondoggles,” Lenz says in the document. “They were for important business of the Legislative Assembly — part of an ongoing program to improve security and business continuity in face of threats like the shootings at Parliament in Ottawa ... and natural disasters.”
Plecas said his report is based on a lengthy investigation conducted by his office and includes his personal observations.
Plecas, a criminologist, was named Speaker of the legislature after B.C.’s close-fought 2017 election that resulted in the minority New Democrat government. Plecas was elected as a Liberal, but was ejected from the party caucus after he accepted the Speaker’s post. He now sits as an Independent.
“British Columbia taxpayers deserve a legislative assembly that is accountable, transparent, efficient, fiscally responsible and fair to its employees,” says the Speaker’s first report. “A full inquiry needs to be conducted into these matters and changes need to be made. That is why I have brought these matters forward.”
The government said in this month’s throne speech it will “work with this assembly to implement reforms that restore trust in this core institution, so that our democracy is stronger going forward.”