VICTORIA — The B.C. legislature’s suspended clerk and sergeant-at-arms are being accused of hundreds of thousands of dollars in “flagrant overspending” in a new report produced Monday by Speaker Darryl Plecas.
Clerk Craig James and sergeant-at-arms Gary Lenz claimed inappropriate expenses, went on lavish foreign trips during which little work was done, and handed out questionable retirement and pay benefits, according to the report, which also highlighted odd examples of a wood-splitter kept at the clerk’s house and a truck-load of missing alcohol.
The 76-page report stunned MLAs, who voted to release it to the public after a two-hour closed meeting.
It also appeared to bolster Plecas’ case that he was justified in conducting a secret investigation into the legislature’s two highest-ranking non-partisan officials without telling MLAs, despite heavy criticism in recent months by the Opposition Liberals that he had overstepped his authority.
“I was shocked and saddened by what I read,” said NDP house leader Mike Farnworth. “What I saw in the documents and documented evidence in that report was — if it’s not criminal, it’s certainly unacceptable. And I think the general public would look at it and go, ‘That’s just wrong. That’s just not what we expect.’”
In a responding statement, James and Lenz said they were “shocked” at having the report released without anyone asking them to explain the spending.
“We are only now able to read the allegations for the first time and we are confident that time will show that they are completely false and untrue,” said the statement. “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. It is contrary to how our public institutions should treat people. It is contrary to how the Speaker of the legislature should act.
“There was no need for this. Since the day that we were ejected from the Legislature, we have made it clear to all that we are willing, indeed keen, to clear our names. We made it clear that we would respond to all allegations. We have not been given the chance. No one can think this was the right way to proceed.”
The RCMP is investigating under the supervision of two special prosecutors. Neither man has been charged with any crime, and they remain on paid administrative leave from their jobs at the legislature.
Although Plecas said he turned over his information to police in August, in his report he noted the special prosecutors did not want to receive a copy of the document he produced Monday for MLAs.
Plecas’ report outlined alleged inappropriate expenses by James and Lenz, including $1,157.26 for a suit and cufflinks in London, $10,000 worth of liquor loaded into James’ pickup truck that James allegedly said was being delivered to former Liberal speaker of the legislature Bill Barisoff, $5,000 in digital magazine subscriptions (to publications such as Palm Springs Life and Electric Bike Action), a more than $13,000 wood-splitter and work trailer ordered for the legislature but that “never arrived at the Legislative Assembly, and instead was taken directly to Mr. James’ personal residence where Mr. James and Mr. Lenz were using it to split firewood.”
The report also outlined questionable retirement allowances to executives such as James, an expensive life insurance policy, and cash payments in lieu of vacation days worth “at a minimum, several hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
According to Plecas, several international trips — including a December 2017 10-day visit to the United Kingdom and Scotland, a second trip to the U.K. in 2018, as well as June 2018 trip to China — were marked by questionable personal expenses, little actual work and expensive travel and accommodation.
The report also cited workplace concerns over “otherwise unjustified terminations” and treatment of staff.
The speaker’s special adviser, Alan Mullen, said there are more allegations that may be criminal but are not included in the report, although he declined to elaborate.
“I would suggest what’s contained in this report is improper, at times against policy,” said Mullen. “It’s not speculation. It’s not made up. It’s not opinion. It is fact and it is backed by up documents, receipts, letters and proof.”
Liberal house leader Mary Polak said she found the report disturbing, but questioned why Plecas also travelled on the trips and approved some of the disputed expenses. In his report, Plecas said he was new to the job and in some cases did not want to offend the senior staffers. Later, he wrote, he started compiling evidence of suspected wrongdoing.
After reviewing the report, MLAs from all parties voted unanimously to ask an auditor-general from another province to conduct a forensic audit at the legislature, as well as conduct a “workplace review.”
MLAs struggled to explain Monday how the expenses were approved over several years despite sign-offs involving other legislative officials, an all-party committee of MLAs overseeing the building, and annual auditing by the independent B.C. auditor-general. All parties cited a need to improve how senior staff at the building handle expenses in the future.
MLAs voted unanimously to ask James and Lenz to submit a written response to the speaker’s report and allegations by Feb. 1.
The legislature crisis began Nov. 20 when James and Lenz were abruptly placed on paid leave by a vote of MLAs, and escorted out of the building by Victoria police.
It was the first time in B.C. history that the two highest-ranking non-partisan officials in the legislature were simultaneously removed from office.
Plecas quickly found himself under intense questioning by MLAs.
Although MLAs voted unanimously at the time to place the clerk and sergeant-at-arms on paid leave, the Opposition Liberals said later they were misled by Plecas when he briefed them prior to the vote because he did not explain his own role in the investigation.
Plecas then suggested Mullen, his aide who conducted the investigation, be installed as the building’s new sergeant-at-arms.
The scandal quickly became hyper-politicized as part of a proxy war between the minority NDP-Green government and the Opposition Liberals.
The Liberals have feuded with Plecas since he defected from their party in September 2017 to become speaker in the minority parliament. Plecas has subsequently accused the Liberals of trying to run him out of office. He is also facing a recall campaign in his riding of Abbotsford South.
For the NDP, Plecas remains a key part of that party’s ability to control the legislature because the NDP-Green alliance does not have enough seats to appoint one of its own MLAs as speaker and maintain control of the house.
This week, Mike Smyth and Rob Shaw discuss big developments in two ongoing by-elections, the ups and downs of the federal race in Burnaby South, and the fallout of new speculation tax rules in the provincial race in Nanaimo.
They also look ahead to promised bombshell revelations from Speaker Darryl Plecas into the legislature scandal.