B.C. Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson slammed Speaker Darryl Plecas for “building his own little empire” and running rogue investigations into two senior legislative officers.
“There's a grave concern that the speaker is out of control. We need to be concerned that he's building his own little empire, staffed with expensive lawyers, with investigators with no credentials and he's being allowed to get away with it,” Wilkinson said Monday afternoon.
Questions have swirled around the role Plecas and his friend and special adviser Alan Mullen played in the investigation and suspension of legislative clerk Craig James and sergeant-at-arms Gary Lenz along with the decision to have police escort the men from the building.
“We have a real problem if we have the Speaker off in his own realm because the Speaker is nothing more than the referee in this chamber,” Wilkinson said. “And if he thinks he's going to run a parallel government with an investigative arm and a legal arm, we have to stop that behaviour.”
Plecas has not spoken publicly but wrote a letter to the three parties’ house leaders on Monday defending the suspensions and stressing that the entire legislature agreed to them.
He said it is open to the legislature to rescind the motion that led to the suspensions, but there was unqualified unanimity among the house leaders beforehand that it would not be appropriate for them to continue in the face of an “active criminal investigation.”
Wilkinson said if the Liberal caucus had a chance to vote again on the motion to suspend the two men, “we would ask very detailed questions because we see a government that doesn't seem to be particularly concerned about doing its homework before wrecking the careers and reputations of people.”
Wilkinson also criticized Plecas for not recusing himself during question period, which was dominated by Liberal MLAs asking questions directly relating to the Speaker’s role in the investigation.
Wilkinson and MLAs Shirley Bond and Mike de Jong repeatedly asked Attorney General David Eby to lay out a timeline of who knew what and when in regards to Plecas's investigation into Lenz and James.
Liberal MLAs demanded to know when Eby and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth knew that the Speaker had hired outside legal counsel to consult on the matter and when they found out that the Speaker had hired Mullen as his special adviser. The Liberals said answers are needed in order to ensure transparency and accountability. Eby deflected all questions, saying it would be inappropriate to give any details during an active criminal investigation.
“The NDP are stonewalling completely, hiding behind false excuses,” Wilkinson later told reporters.
Neither James nor Lenz have been given any details on the nature of the investigation.
Plecas did recuse himself Monday morning during members’ statements, when the B.C. Liberals asked for an emergency debate on the suspensions of James and Lenz. Deputy speaker Raj Chouhan took his place and during afternoon question period, turned down the motion for debate, citing the ongoing police investigation.
De Jong called the events of last week “unprecedented in the life of this institution.”
He said MLAs from all parties are “troubled, frustrated, maybe even angered” by the limited information they were given before unanimously approving the motion to suspend Lenz and James. He said when members voted for the motion, the majority were not aware that the investigation was initiated by Plecas and conducted without any involvement of the legislative accounts management committee. MLAs were also unaware that Plecas wanted to appoint Mullen as acting sergeant-at-arms, “the very person who had initiated and been conducting an investigation.”
On Thursday, house leaders from all three parties confirmed that Plecas raised that idea at a meeting Monday night of that week, even before Lenz was suspended.
Mullen, a former corrections manager at Kent Institution which is a maximum security federal penitentiary in Agassiz, said last week he was hired by Plecas in January to assist with the investigation along with other duties. Mullen and Plecas met when Plecas served as an adjudicator there.
De Jong said he and other MLAs were troubled by the “spectacle of watching [Lenz and James] marched out of this building by law-enforcement officers … in a manner than seems, quite frankly, deliberately designed to inflict the maximum degree of public humiliation and embarrassment.”
In his letter to house leaders, Plecas said Opposition house leader Mary Polak, at the meeting of house leaders last Monday night before the motion was moved, specifically stated: “She did not want or need any further information about the allegations beyond knowing that there was an active RCMP investigation.”
He said that position was entirely reasonable in the circumstances.
Plecas said the work of James and Lenz was central to the functioning of the legislature and the “reality of an active criminal investigation” cannot be ignored by MLAs.
He recounted decisions made at the house leaders’ meeting and said: “In view of the criminal investigation and the unique status of these permanent-officer positions, each of you expressed the clear view that accountability for the decision had to rest with the legislative assembly, difficult as the decision was for everyone.”
He said everyone was well aware that the suspension would not involve advance notice to the officers.
“It was designed this way, as the decision was there was only one realistic outcome.” He disputed that his office “investigated,” saying: “It is for the police to investigate crime, but I also recognized that I should not approach police without exercising reasonable diligence and having some legitimate foundation for doing so.”
The B.C. Liberals have requested an immediate emergency meeting of an all-party management committee. Plecas said it could go ahead as scheduled Dec. 6, not before.