Premier John Horgan is trying to place the legislative assembly expense scandal squarely at the feet of the B.C. Liberals, dating back to 2011 when the then-Liberal government unilaterally appointed Craig James as clerk of the house.
At a press conference in Prince George on Wednesday, Horgan was asked to comment on sections of Speaker Darryl Plecas’s report that suggested James is not impartial, as his role requires, but is closely aligned with the B.C. Liberal Party.
James and sergeant-at-arms Gary Lenz have been suspended with pay since Nov. 20, when they were marched out of the legislature under police escort amid a criminal investigation.
Plecas on Monday released a report accusing James and Lenz of “flagrant overspending” of taxpayer dollars.
The two men have said the allegations are “false and untrue.”
Horgan said James was “appointed arbitrarily, at the whim of [then-house leader] Rich Coleman” and that it was “absolutely unprecedented in British Columbian history.”
“At the time in 2011, I spoke passionately in the legislature, as did Adrian Dix, about how just plain wrong it was for the B.C. Liberals to assume that they can dictate how our institutions run,” Horgan said.
The clerk acts as chief executive officer of the legislature, overseeing rules and procedures and a multimillion-dollar budget.
Following the retirement of longtime clerk George MacMinn in 2011, the Liberal government under then-premier Christy Clark installed James as clerk without the endorsement of all MLAs. The position is a lifetime appointment to ensure the clerk is free from political influence.
The Opposition NDP wanted the clerk’s job posted publicly so applicants could be selected by a bipartisan committee.
At the time James was appointed, he was also acting chief electoral officer, in charge of administering the referendum on B.C.’s harmonized sales tax. While at Elections B.C., James came under fire and even received death threats from anti-HST advocates who questioned his decisions on the HST citizens’ petition and Liberal recall campaigns.
According to the Speaker’s report, Lenz shared with Plecas his view that James was not impartial and that he was in fact very close to the B.C. Liberal Party.
Plecas wrote that he spoke with several witnesses, including Lenz, who suggested James was aligned with the Liberals, “with some suggesting that Mr. James’s unexpected appointment as clerk of the house was connected to his ‘doing a job’ for the government as acting chief electoral officer.”
Horgan was asked if he feels vindicated for raising his protest to James’s appointment in 2011.
“I suppose that there’s vindication in that. I take no comfort in that, though,” he told reporters.
“But rather than vindication I prefer to have an independent, impartial clerk making sure the business of British Columbia is done in an open and transparent way and issues like excessive expenditures on what seem to be pretty bizarre items, just doesn’t happen again.”
In July 2012, then-auditor general John Doyle released a scathing report on the legislature’s finances, saying records were such a mess it was impossible for him to tell if any money had been improperly spent.
As a result, James oversaw sweeping changes, such as appointing an audit working group, auditing public financial statements, requiring MLAs to post online scanned copies of receipts for their expense claims and for constituency expenses to be made public.
However, a month after Doyle’s audit, watchdog group Integrity B.C. released documents that showed James billed Elections B.C. $43,295 for travel between Aug. 25 and Dec. 12, 2010. That included more than $14,000 for James and his wife to fly to Nairobi, Kenya, to attend the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association annual conference.
James told media at the time that he was asked to give a talk at the conference because he had been overseeing the referendum on the harmonized sales tax.
Horgan said the audit led “to the better practices we have today, but, clearly, those practices have been circumvented by the existing officers of the legislature. So we have more work to do there.”
The all-party committee that oversees the legislature’s finances voted Monday to appoint an auditor general from another province to conduct a forensic audit on the offices of the legislature.
But Horgan said he has confidence in B.C.’s auditor general, Carol Bellringer, to lead the audit.
Bellringer said she was alarmed that Plecas kept her in dark about his investigation into misspending and shortly after she learned about the allegations Monday, she also found out her office was being bypassed to conduct the forensic audit.
“I was disturbed that there was a reference implied that I couldn’t do it,” Bellringer told the Times Colonist.
The auditor general’s office audits the legislature’s financial accounts annually, but Bellringer said individual expenses of travel or clothing would not necessarily be caught in the global audit of the legislature’s $78-million budget.
Bellringer spoke with Plecas and other MLAs on Wednesday and said they insisted they still have confidence in her office.