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Suspensions certain to turn up heat on legislature finances

B.C.’s MLAs will have to decide this week whether to sign-off on the legislature’s annual finances, amid a brewing scandal that has seen the suspension of the building’s two highest-ranking officials.
Photo - B.C. legislature buildings generic
The B.C. legislature buildings in downtown Victoria.

B.C.’s MLAs will have to decide this week whether to sign-off on the legislature’s annual finances, amid a brewing scandal that has seen the suspension of the building’s two highest-ranking officials.

MLAs on the all-party legislative assembly management committee will meet Thursday for what is expected to be a contentious gathering in which Speaker Darryl Plecas will face pointed questions about his role in a secret seven-month investigation that led to the suspension of the building’s clerk and sergeant-at-arms. Plecas confirmed Monday the meeting will go ahead as scheduled.

Tied into that drama, MLAs will also face a key decision on their confidence in the legislature’s $80-million financial report for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2018. Normally by December, LAMC has approved that financial document and given it to Auditor General Carol Bellringer for her review.

But Bellringer said she’s yet to receive an official version from MLAs. She’s unsure if that has to do with the police investigation at the legislature, or if it is for some other reason.

And even if MLAs do produce the books, Bellringer said she won’t sign off on anything until someone has explained to her whether the allegations in the building involve financial matters.

“I still don’t know what’s going on,” Bellringer said Monday. “I literally do not have an idea what the allegation is. So I don’t know if it impacts the statements or not and until I’ve got that in front of me, I’m just not comfortable to sign off. It’s that simple.”

Liberal, NDP and Green MLAs on LAMC “have to approve the statements before we can sign the opinion,” she said.

“If we gave a clean opinion and it turned out there’s a problem, my reputation is gone. Likewise LAMC has to approve the statements before I can sign off anyway. And I have no idea if they would feel if they are in a position to do this either.”

Clerk Craig James and sergeant-at-arms Gary Lenz were both placed on administrative leave with pay on Nov. 20, following a unanimous vote of MLAs in the house.

Two special prosecutors are overseeing an RCMP investigation into unspecified allegations against the men, after receiving information from a secret seven-month investigation conducted by Plecas and his aide Alan Mullen. James and Lenz have said they don’t know the allegations against them. The RCMP, Plecas, Mullen and the special prosecutors have refused to release any details. No one has been charged, and no allegations have been tested in court.

Bellringer said she’s not even sure the allegations are financial. She said she’s pieced together some speculation “but nothing I can speak to” and nothing that would explain specific allegations.

Her office receives tips and allegations all the time from the public and whistleblowers, but Bellringer said there have been no allegations about the legislature made to her.

“I’m not holding off because I know there’s something and don’t want to go there,” she said. “I just don’t know what it is. I can’t go run around and look at everything in case that’s what it ends up to be. But I do know something is happening so that’s enough of an indicator to me of don’t go signing an audit opinion until I know what’s going on. It’s a really strange place to be in.”

The legislature’s almost $80-million budget is considered vote one of the annual B.C. government budget, though it is rarely debated by MLAs directly in budgetary proceedings and is instead left to LAMC. The finances are handled by the clerk, with oversight from the speaker.

Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson said his MLAs aren’t prepared to sign off on the finances of the legislative assembly without some explanation from Plecas on what’s going on. Wilkinson said Bellringer attends the in-camera finance and audit committee meetings, so for her to be in the dark is unsettling.

“We as the opposition are just as frustrated as the auditor general about the conduct of the speaker’s office,” said Wilkinson. “Just like her we want the whole truth of these events before we’re ready to approve anything.”

Even with the Liberal opposition, the NDP and Greens have a slight majority on the committee and could push the finances through if they wanted.

The fact the scandal has now bled into the financial functioning of the legislature “is of grave concern to us,” said Wilkinson. “The speaker and the NDP are trying to hide what’s happening and we’re counting on the media and the auditor general to get the truth out to British Columbians.”

Bellringer’s predecessor, John Doyle, issued a scathing audit in 2012 about the legislature’s finances, concluding the figures were in such disarray he could not even determine if any money was missing. James, who had just been named clerk months prior to the audit, helped lead financial reforms in the building, including an audit working group, audited public financial statements, scanned receipts of MLA expenses, public reports on constituency expenses, open meetings of LAMC and other checks and balances.

But the MLA oversight on LAMC has fallen off in the past two years.

The committee has only met three times since the May 2017 election. Prior to that was another almost year-long gap. The bulk of the meetings have been its in-camera finance and audit committee. Bellringer said the lack of public meetings are a problem, despite progress on transparency made in the past.

“They really have made improvements, it would awful to see everything go backwards,” she said. “They’ve got to keep it moving.”

Bellringer, who has experience investigating fraud while serving as Manitoba’s auditor general, said no matter what happens her office is likely to go in and produce another audit of expenses similar to the 2012 review.

If the legislature can’t produce an annual financial report, it will be in violating the law – though Bellringer admitted there are no immediate penalties for doing so.

However, there may be longer-term consequences to the B.C. budget and its year-end public accounts that include the $80-million legislative assembly.

“At some point I’m going to need to know, even just to sign off for the public accounts next year,” said Bellringer.