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opinion

It wasn’t long after two of the B.C. Legislature’s most senior officials were walked out of the building under police escort last November, that politicians who had initially supported their removal began having second thoughts.

The Opposition Liberals insisted they were misled about the nature of the investigation spearheaded by Speaker Darryl Plecas. They were suddenly uncomfortable with the role that his special adviser, Alan Mullen, played in the probe. There was also this unstated belief that the two people at the centre of the controversy – clerk Craig James and sergeant-at-arms Gary Lenz – were good guys, loved by all, who had been unfairly treated and maligned.

Suddenly, it was Mr. Plecas under attack and facing intense scrutiny. He responded by promising a report that would astound and repulse people.

Well, this week Mr. Plecas delivered, and his 76-page bombshell didn’t fall short of his prediction. It contains sweeping allegations against the two suspended officers, and amounts to a disturbing montage of suggested abuse based on an unfettered culture of entitlement. This would include lavish overseas spending sprees, free booze at taxpayers’ expense, the questionable amassing of unused vacation days later converted into hundreds of thousands in cash, digital subscriptions that appear to have little relevance to their jobs (my favourite: Arizona Highways magazine). And on it goes.

The one expense that seems to have made everyone’s top five list is a $3,000 wood splitter – and $10,000 trailer used to transport it – that resided at Mr. James’s home. Mr. James apparently defended the purchase by saying he was holding it in the event some trees fell down at the legislature. Meantime, it would be used to split wood on his property.

It would not be hyperbole to say that B.C. politicians were gobsmacked by the report’s contents. Of course, none of the allegations have been proven and Mr. Lenz and Mr. James dispute suggestions they did anything wrong. They have vowed to refute or explain all of their activities.

Meantime, an RCMP investigation continues. This was prompted back in the fall at Mr. Plecas’s urging. There are two special prosecutors at the ready to consider any charges, if it reaches that point.

Members of the legislature’s management committee will also commission a comprehensive financial audit to look into issues raised in the report.

So there things will sit for now.

Some are wondering how Mr. Plecas can be questioning expense reports, many of which he signed off on, and criticizing overseas trips he took part in. Perhaps Mr. Plecas, new to the position in the fall of 2017, should not have accepted the invitations he says were arranged by Mr. James and Mr. Lenz to attend conferences of little apparent value. On the other hand, he would not have known what he alleges was afoot without witnessing it first-hand. (Among other things, expensive suits being purchased abroad and claimed as legislative wardrobe.) It would also appear Mr. Plecas refrained from taking part in the questionable behaviour he maintains was taking place, despite allegedly being encouraged to do so from the two legislative officers in question.

The report prompts many questions, among them being just how long this type of activity was going on, if it indeed was. Mr. Plecas has only been Speaker a little over 16 months. Before him Linda Reid was in the office and the one signing off on these expenses. During her years-long time in the chair, Ms. Reid came under criticism for her own spending habits. In 2014, she would have to repay her husband’s $5,500 airfare to South Africa, which she initially claimed as an expense.

Mr. Plecas’s report has also caused some to wonder how the two officers’ expenses could have consistently passed the scrutiny of the auditor general if they have been as the Speaker describes. How could no red flags have emerged if Mr. James and Mr. Lenz were routinely indulging in the flagrant abuse of public funds that the Speaker’s report alleges?

What we also don’t know is how much of the expenses that Mr. Plecas suggests were wrongly claimed, might actually be allowed under the rules of the legislative assembly. It wouldn’t be the first time we were astonished at what public officials can legally claim. Some of the privileges described in the Speaker’s report may be standard fare.

There is much to be determined in this emerging story. No one has been found guilty of anything yet. But it may well be that far from the clumsy, bungling, overreaching private eye he’s been made out to be, Darryl Plecas could go down as one of the most important Speakers in recent B.C. history.

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