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'Utterly useless' wood splitter was for former B.C. legislature clerk's own gain: Crown

Craig James is accused of improperly approving a $257,988 retirement allowance to himself in February 2012, among other alleged fraud and breach of trust violations
craig-james
Former clerk of the Legislative Assembly of B.C. Craig James. File photo

When Craig James, the former clerk of the Legislative Assembly of B.C., returned a now-infamous wood splitter purchased with public funds to the capital grounds, it was slightly scratched and rusty, B.C. Supreme Court heard on day one of a corruption trial.

This was some of the early evidence tabled Monday by special prosecutors Brock Martland and David Butcher against James. He faces three counts of breach of trust and two counts of fraud following his police-escorted departure from the legislature in November 2018.

James, accused of abusing his position of prestige and power, pleaded not guilty to all counts in court, where he appeared in person alongside criminal defence lawyers Kevin Westell and Gavin Cameron.

The BC Liberal government appointed James clerk in 2011 after a 24-year career in the legislature, beginning as a committees clerk in 1987. The position is akin to being the CEO of the legislature — the non-partisan, autonomous entity overseeing the provincial government’s legislative process inside the capital buildings in Victoria.

The allegations against James came to light in 2018 after Speaker of the House Darryl Plecas conducted an internal investigation into James and then Sergeant-at-Arms Gary Lenz.

The trial, being conducted by Associate Chief Justice Heather J. Holmes, is expected to take six weeks. Plecas is not scheduled to testify as a witness, said Butcher. Day one was occupied entirely by the prosecutors laying out some of the details of their allegations, while defence remained largely quiet.

Butcher began by outlining three key alleged actions by James that led to the charges. First, James is accused of improperly approving a $257,988 retirement allowance to himself in February 2012. Second, he is accused of fraud in excess of $5,000 for personal expenditures billed to the legislature. Finally, he is accused of defrauding the legislature by procuring a wood splitter and a trailer — costing more than $13,000 total — as emergency equipment for the capital buildings but using it for personal use.

Martland outlined some of the details of the retirement allowance, including matters the public has already heard from an independent fact-finding report by former Supreme Court of Canada Justice Beverley McLachlin.

In May 2019, the Legislative Assembly released McLachlan’s report that found James “turned a blind eye” to whether or not the retirement bonus had any foundation to it.

Her findings were not binding in any way. But the benefit, McLachlan’s report noted, that was once given to certain employees without pensions was rescinded in 1987, and employees, including James, were given a 10% pay increase in lieu. James allegedly somehow determined in 2012 he was entitled to the benefit, in part due to an unclear legal opinion.

Martland repeated some of the details of McLachlan’s report.

Butcher stated James’ “vanity” spending included trinkets from a trip to London, including books on the monarchy, beekeeping and whiskey, as well as commemorative coins.

McLachlin found James had engaged in four counts of misconduct related to spending taxpayers’ money and property.

McLachlin stated James engaged in misconduct by charging travel expenses, such as two suits ($2,150), luggage ($2,135) and insurance premiums, to the legislature.

Martland began the day going through five legislature policies related to expenditures and employee responsibilities that the Crown deems relevant to the case. He noted conflict of interest is defined in the legislature as “using the office of employment for personal gain.”

While McLachlan previously noted the line between personal and business use “may be difficult to track,” the prosecutors expect to do just that.

Martland told of how the wood splitter was purported by James to be used for a catastrophic emergency at the capital, as it would be used to chop trees for firewood.

Butcher put forth his intention to show the equipment would be “utterly useless” in an emergency. Numerous times, it was noted how far away the splitter and trailer were stored from the legislature (either at James’ house or a storage locker).

Martland further outlined the journey of the trailer and wood splitter from their purchase in fall 2017 by James to their eventual return to the legislature nearly a year later, when a police forensics team assessed their condition, which showed they had been used.

He read an email James wrote to Lenz upon initially picking up the wood splitter in Saanich: “Picked up the wood splitter. May try it tomorrow, you will love it.”

Martland ended the day discussing the retirement benefit policies and is expected to pick up on those details on Tuesday.

gwood@glaciermedia.ca