The top two officials of the B.C. legislature are alleged to have reaped hundreds of thousands of dollars in overspending on travel, jewellery and other inappropriate benefits, and charged personal purchases to taxpayers, according to a report released on Monday by the Speaker of the House.
In total, the allegations of improper spending by Craig James, Clerk of the House, and Gary Lenz, the Sergeant-at-Arms, amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars over a period of 18 months. The two men were suspended with pay in November after Speaker Darryl Plecas brought concerns to the RCMP, who are conducting an criminal investigation under the guidance of two special prosecutors.
Until Monday, little explanation had been given about the allegations. In December, the Speaker vowed to resign his post if the public is not sickened by the results of a forensic audit of spending practices within the legislature.
After Mr. Plecas delivered his 76-page report during a closed-door meeting, an all-party committee unanimously agreed to move ahead with an audit. As well, the committee has given Mr. James and Mr. Lenz until Feb. 1 to respond to the concerns of the Speaker, who said he has a large binder of supporting evidence. The report was later made public.
In a statement on Monday, Mr. James and Mr. Lenz said they were shocked by the public release of “unsubstantiated and hearsay allegations” and said they were never given an opportunity to clear their names. “We are confident that time will show that they are completely false and untrue,” they stated. “To be publicly accused of these things after months of secret investigation without being given any chance to respond is contrary to all principles of fairness and decent treatment.”
The Clerk is responsible for management and administrative services within the legislative assembly and serves as Clerk to the Legislative Assembly Management Committee, which governs spending for the legislature operations. The Sergeant-at-Arms has a ceremonial role and is responsible for protective services in the legislature and security for all MLAs' constituency offices.
The report includes allegations of overspending on trips abroad – accompanied by family members – with questionable business rationales. Mr. Plecas also said he has uncovered evidence of unrecorded vacations and personal purchases that were charged to the Legislative Assembly.
In one example, Mr. Plecas recounted his first overseas trip with the two officers to the United Kingdom for meetings, and that they took him to an exclusive men’s wear shop in London to be fitted for a new speaker’s hat. At that time, Mr. James bought a new suit and other items worth $1,300, while Mr. Lenz purchased $660 worth of items, including mother-of-pearl cufflinks and an onyx and silver stud set. All those items were charged to the Legislative Assembly.
At another stop, the three went shopping at the Scottish Parliament gift shop where Mr. Lenz got more cufflinks, a women’s brooch, a trinket box, a tie and a scarf. “I have since learned that all of those items were expensed to the Legislative Assembly, under the heading of ‘miscellaneous uniform items,’ ” Mr. Plecas wrote.
In one instance, a wood splitter and tools trailer – together worth about $13,000 – were bought by the Legislative Assembly, but never arrived on site. The report says the items “were delivered directly to Mr. James’s personal residence.”
As well, Mr. Plecas says he found evidence of inappropriate payouts of cash in lieu of vacation, and travel at the Legislative Assembly’s expense “for what appears to be other than legitimate work purposes.”
Mr. Plecas did not speak directly to reporters on Monday, but his special adviser Alan Mullen said he was pleased the committee unanimously agreed to take action. “B.C. deserves better than this,” Mr. Mullen said, holding up his copy of the report.
The Speaker wrote in the report that he was suspicious about spending in the legislature since the day he took the job in the fall of 2017 and discovered his office was stocked with cabinets full of liquor, including expensive scotch. “He knew something was not quite right here,” Mr. Mullen said. “He just didn’t understand why the Speaker would have all this stuff in his own office.”
Mr. Plecas also indicated the two officers, although they are sharing a lawyer, did not operate in lockstep. He recounted meetings with Mr. Lenz at which the Sergeant-At-Arms raised concerns about Mr. James’s conduct. “Mr. Lenz expressed the view that Mr. James was not impartial. … This was the first time Mr. Lenz had said something to me that indicated he was not entirely aligned with Mr. James’s views and conduct. Mr. Lenz added that I should not trust Mr. James.”
In one of those meetings, Mr. Lenz “went on to propose how he thought Mr. James should be removed from office.” But, Mr. Lenz suggested Mr. James be encouraged to quietly resign, side-stepping the need for an audit or police investigation, according to the Speaker’s report.
But Mr. Plecas was convinced that was not the correct option. “Based on what I had seen and heard, I believed that there was a real possibility that crimes may have been committed and I felt obligated to bring those matters to the attention of the RCMP,” Mr. Plecas wrote in the report.
On Monday, Solicitor-General Mike Farnworth, one of four New Democrats on the eight-member committee, said he was shocked and saddened to read the report. He said it makes a strong case for the Speaker’s concerns.
“When you read that report and all the documentation that is with it, I don’t see how you can do anything other than accept much of what is in that report,” he said.
In the absence of further details on the allegations, members of the Liberal opposition had begun to question whether they were justified in supporting the removal of the two officers.
“We’re pleased to see the public finally has some information to look at,“ said Liberal House Leader Mary Polak, one of two Liberals on the committee. “It’s very concerning what we see in terms of the allegations around expenditures.“
Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver said his caucus fully supports the committee’s motions.
“The report released today makes serious and shocking claims that have significant implications for public trust in our democratic institutions,” he said in a statement.
With a report from The Canadian Press