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The $3000 wood splitter parked on Legislature grounds, part of the expenses in the 76-page report released on Monday following the Legislative Assembly Management Committee at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019.CHAD HIPOLITO/The Globe and Mail

British Columbia’s Speaker of the House Darryl Plecas takes aim at a lack of oversight by the province’s elected officials in his report on what he calls flagrant overspending by two senior legislature staff.

The province’s MLAs have been told since 2012 of the urgent need for reforms of how spending within the legislature is managed. Mr. Plecas, who was named Speaker in the fall of 2017, launched a private investigation with his special adviser, Alan Mullen. The report he tabled Monday alleges lavish spending and personal enrichment by Craig James, Clerk of the House, and Gary Lenz, the Sergeant-at-Arms. The sums involved total hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The most vivid demonstration was hidden in plain sight on the legislature grounds on Tuesday.

A lightly used $3,200 log-splitter and $10,000 utility trailer materialized on the B.C. Legislature grounds some time after Mr. James and Mr. Lenz were suspended with pay last November. Purchased with public funds, the top-of-the-line equipment was bought, ostensibly as emergency equipment, under an opaque approval process where senior officials signed off on each other’s spending. Even murkier was the manner in which the equipment ended up being stored at Mr. James’s home.

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The $10,000 utility trailer parked on Legislature grounds.CHAD HIPOLITO

Mr. Plecas’s report details junkets to England, China and Scotland; suits and trinkets purchased and expensed to the public; questionable claims for electronics; and abuse of expense accounts.

The Speaker brought his concerns to the RCMP, who are now conducting a criminal investigation, and MLAs have now agreed to launch a broader, external audit.

Among the details of questionable magazine subscriptions, $500 noise-cancelling headphones and other high-end tech gear, truckloads of alcohol and lavish travel, one of the most notable purchases is the log-splitter.

It was one of the equipment purchases approved as part of a $65,000 project in October, 2017, proposed by Mr. Lenz and signed off on by Mr. James, along with two other senior legislature officials. The business case noted that in a disaster, building staff could use the equipment to clear fallen trees and create firewood for campfires to keep warm.

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Special advisor to the speaker Alan Mullen comments on the report during a press conference in Victoria, B.C., on Jan. 22, 2019.CHAD HIPOLITO/The Globe and Mail

The Plecas report indicates there are no records of the meeting where the project was approved. Two pieces of equipment never arrived at the legislature, according to the Plecas report, “and instead were delivered directly to Mr. James’ personal residence where they have allegedly been used by Mr. James and Mr. Lenz for their own purposes.”

In December, weeks after Mr. James and Mr. Lenz had been placed on administrative leave, Mr. James’s lawyers wrote to the Speaker and advised that Mr. James wished to return the log-splitter. The lawyers asserted that Mr. James was holding the equipment because there was no room to store it at the legislature, the report noted. The trailer subsequently appeared without explanation in the parking lot of the legislature.

Mr. Plecas, in his report, said the lack of oversight over spending needs to be addressed. The rules are covered in a patchwork of custom, policies and law. “There appears to be too much power and too little accountability in the Office of the Clerk," he wrote. “There is no suggestion that these expenses were not signed off or otherwise approved. However, that in itself may illustrate an overarching concern; namely, that expenses which appear to have no conceivable business rationale could still be formally approved under prevailing systems.”

He pointed to one example in which the Clerk of the House was reimbursed a total of $966.84 for clothing purchased at Brooks Brothers, where the receipts were amended by hand to appear to fit into an approved expense for his required uniform: “Notably, the word tie is crossed off and “tabs” is hand written in. Mr. James’s house uniform includes judicial tabs; it does not include conventional neckties. Brooks Brothers confirmed in a recent telephone call that the store does not sell tabs.”

Steve Chaplin served for 15 years as counsel in the Office of the Law Clerk and Parliamentary Counsel of the House of Commons in Ottawa, where he was involved in drafting spending rules for Parliament.

Mr. Chaplin said Ottawa tightened its own spending controls after a series of scandals. Today, the House of Commons’s internal board of management meets regularly to provide that spending oversight, with written rules setting out allowable expenses and travel guidelines.

“You get the accretion of entitlement, and then comes the straw that breaks the camel’s back and then you get a reset," he said. After reading the Plecas report, he believes B.C. is now due for such a reset.

“Legislators are responsible for this, and it’s up to them to have a mechanism in place that connects them to the administration of the legislature,” he said. “It appears to have not been there, or it has broken down horribly.”

Andrew Weaver, Leader of the BC Green Party, called the allegations in the report “sickening,” and said his caucus is committed to fixing the system. “The allegations point to a culture of entitlement,” he said.

He noted the allegations have not been proven, but said he does not see how the two officers can return to work. He singled out the receipts that indicate the two officials purchased expensive trinkets and clothing while abroad, and then claimed the cost on their expenses. “Expensing mother-of-pearl cufflinks, while many British Columbians can’t even afford breakfast, is just outrageous.”

Attorney-General David Eby said Tuesday that Mr. James and Mr. Lenz should have the opportunity to respond to the allegations, but added “most people who read the report shared my feeling that it contains some very disturbing allegations and, more broadly, raised concerns about controls in the legislative assembly and the lack of oversight.”

In a statement, the RCMP said they are operating on the file separately from the Speaker’s office. “We are aware of the report and our investigative actions are independent from actions taken by [the] Speaker and his team,” Sergeant Janelle Shoihet said in a statement.

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