Legislature Speaker’s report accuses suspended officials of ‘flagrant overspending’

Two top managers at the B.C. legislature, suspended while police conduct an investigation, are accused of “flagrant overspending” which allegedly involves lavish trips overseas, siphoning off of alcohol and billing the public for personal expenses, according to a report released Monday by Speaker Darryl Plecas. In a joint statement, clerk of the legislature Craig James and sergeant-at-arms Gary Lenz said Plecas’s allegations against them are “false and untrue.” They said Plecas has harmed their families by preparing a report in secret to “further blacken our reputations.”

According to the report, Lenz and James were allegedly responsible for “flagrant overspending on luxurious trips overseas with questionable business rationales” and the purchase of tens of thousands of dollars worth of personal items billed to the public over less than two years. The two also allegedly received hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of inappropriate cash payouts in lieu of vacation, showed a lack of oversight or appropriate protocols in awarding employment benefits, and attempted to obtain highly questionable further benefits “totalling millions of dollars.”

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[Link: PDF of Speaker Darryl Plecas's report]

Allegation: $10,000 worth of alcohol taken

James is accused of misappropriating “thousands of dollars of alcohol and equipment” from the legislature.

Plecas wrote in his report that in May 2018, he was approached by Lenz, who told him that in the summer of 2013, James instructed three legislature employees to load his pickup truck with more than $10,000 worth of liquor that had been purchased by the legislative assembly. James returned for a second trip and loaded more liquor, as well as a legislative chamber desk, chair and various personal items belonging to former speaker Bill Barisoff.

According to the report, Lenz told Plecas that James was going to deliver those items to Barisoff’s house in the Okanagan. When reached Monday, Barisoff told the Times Colonist no liquour was ever delivered to his house by James.

Plecas wrote that deputy sergeant-at-arms Randy Ennis confirmed that he knew about the alcohol incident. Ennis described it as a “theft” of liquor and he said, “I’m going to lose my job over this one.” Ennis said, according to the report, that the liquor incident was “nothing” compared with the wood splitter that was purchased on the public dime, at James’s request and supported by Lenz.

Allegation: Wood splitter bought, taken to a home

According to the report, Ennis said the wood splitter was not delivered to the legislature, but instead was taken directly to James’ home where the clerk and the sergeant-at-arms used it to split fire wood. In December 2018, James, though his lawyer, offered to return the $3,200 wood splitter. Instead, it was seized by the RCMP.

At one point, the report says, Lenz suggested James should be fired, telling Plecas to “build a case” against James that could force him to resign.

When Plecas suggested to Lenz that an outside audit or a police investigation might be needed, Lenz said: “We do not want an audit; the last thing we want is an audit and we don’t want to get outside police involved,” according to the report.

For several years, Lenz and James took cash payouts instead of taking vacation days, which Plecas says amounts to unbudgeted cash bonuses in the thousands and tens of thousands of dollars.

The report alleges the senior officers used working time and public funds to make day or overnight trips away from the legislature “for what appear to be other than legitimate work purposes.”

Allegation: Luxury overseas trips

Plecas raised concerns about several expensive trips to London and China that were arranged by James’s office. Plecas, Lenz and James went to London in December 2017 to meet with MI5 security officials and Plecas said he was surprised that they were staying in the Park Plaza Westminster Bridge, an expensive hotel across from the Houses of Parliament. Plecas wrote that he became uncomfortable when James and Lenz purchased a suit and cufflinks, totalling $1,157, and expensed it to the legislative assembly.

Plecas wrote that he was surprised “at how luxuriously we were travelling and how little we were doing for a work trip.” He said he did not take issue with it at the time because he was new to the Speaker’s job and did not want to alienate Lenz and James.

During an August 2018 trip to London, James purchased a $1,000 suit, which he expensed to the legislative assembly. He encouraged Plecas to do the same for his purchase, saying it was part of the uniform. Plecas said he insisted on paying for his suit.

At a meeting in Plecas’s office in October 2018, Lenz offered to the Speaker options for potential business trips in 2019, suggesting that any location could be justified as a business purpose. Lenz said, “OK, where in the world do you want to go?” Plecas recalled.

Allegation: mistreatment of employees

Plecas said he also became concerned when in March or April 2018, James asked him to sign a “retirement allowance” which proposed that any 10-year legislature executives (including the clerk, the sergeant-at-arms and the executive financial officer) who resigned or retired would be entitled to 12 months of salary. Plecas said for James, this would amount to more than $300,000, “on top of his sizable pension.”

Plecas said he agreed to sign the document, so he would have evidence of James’s request. He later rescinded the benefit.

Plecas acknowledged that the expenses were signed off on and approved, which he said might in itself illustrate an overarching concern that “expenses which appear to have no conceivable business rationale could still be formally approved under prevailing systems.”

The report flagged concerns over mistreatment of legislative employees, “including potentially retributive or otherwise unjustified terminations.”

In a press conference moments after the report was released, Alan Mullen, special adviser to the Speaker, said the culture in the legislative offices resembled the 1960s rather than 2019, although he did not detail specific allegations of workplace harassment.

Response from James and Lenz

In a joint statement after Plecas released his report, James and Lenz said: “We are shocked at what the Speaker and the Legislative Management Committee have done today. ... The Speaker has now compounded the harm to us and our families by preparing a report in secret, without any input from us, and recommended that it be released to the public to further blacken our reputations.”

Lenz and James said at no point in the last few weeks has Plecas provided information about the allegations or allowed the men a chance to respond. “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.”

Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said the alleged behaviour in the report is “unacceptable.”

“What I saw, the documents and the documented evidence in that report was, if it’s not criminal, it’s certainly unacceptable,” Farnworth said. “I think the general public would look at it and go, ‘that’s just wrong, that’s just not what we expect.’ ”

Plecas wrote that the details in the report “are not simply bare allegations” but based on his personal observations, interviews with 16 current and former employees of the legislative assembly and corroborated with documents and records from the legislative assembly.

His report was accompanied by a five-inch-thick binder with copies of receipts and supporting documentation.

Plecas passed his concerns on to the RCMP in August, and it is investigating.

Two special prosecutors are also involved, but have declined to receive a copy of Plecas’s report.

The report was released following a two-hour in camera discussion by the all-party committee that oversees financial management of the legislature.

Committee of MLAs seeks audit of legislature departments

The committee agreed that house leaders will contact Lenz and James and ask them for a written response to allegations in the report, to be submitted by Feb. 1.

The committee also agreed to draft terms and conditions for a comprehensive audit of legislative assembly departments, which will be carried out by an auditor general of another province. No timeline for those audits was given.

A workplace management review will be done of legislative assembly offices, which include the offices of the clerk, the sergeant-at-arms and the Speaker.

In a statement, Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver said: “The report released today makes serious and shocking claims that have significant implications for public trust in our democratic institutions.”

Weaver said the motions passed unanimously by the committee are “crucial first steps toward restoring integrity and faith in our provincial government.”

James and Lenz were marched out of the legislature under police escort on Nov. 20 following a unanimous vote by MLAs to place them on paid administrative leave while an investigation continued.

Neither the RCMP nor the B.C. Criminal Justice Branch have given any information on the allegations.

James is chief administrative officer for the legislature. He has been clerk since 2011 and has a lifetime appointment to the job. He is responsible for its $70-million annual budget and procedural matters. Last year, he was paid a salary of $347,090 and claimed $51,649 in expenses.

Lenz, former head of Sidney/North Saanich RCMP, is in charge of security at the B.C. legislature. Last year, Lenz was paid a salary of $218,167 and claimed $23,606 in expenses.

kderosa@timescolonist.com

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Link: Speaker Darryl Plecas's report

Link: Some of the documents mentioned in Speaker Darryl Plecas's report

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Expense claims: souvenirs, headphones, wine

According to Speaker Darryl Plecas’s report, clerk of the legislature Craig James billed taxpayers for items that might be personal in nature.

In 2017 and 2018, James billed taxpayers for:

• $1,300 worth of gift shop purchases including commemorative stamps, notebooks and watches from the Houses of Parliament, the National Portrait Gallery and other London landmarks.

• $3,037 for executive taxis during three trips to London.

• $1,138 on a piece of luggage during a June 2018 trip to Hong Kong.

• $5,000 for digital magazine subscriptions, including Bicycling, Arizona Highways, Palm Springs Life, Sunset, Wired, Flightradar24, History Today, India Today, The Economist, New Scientist, Electric Bike Action, Times of London, Marine Traffic — Ship Tracking, Popular Mechanics, and Forbes.

• $504 for Bose noise-cancelling headphones.

• $966 for clothing purchased at Brooks Brothers.

• $1,631.27 for 48 bottles of wine and one branded wooden two-bottle box from Painted Rock Estate Winery in Penticton.

• $1,380 for tickets to a Seattle Mariners game for 13 people on Aug. 16, 2017, when the clerk’s office hosted a “legislative assemblies business continuity network” conference in Bellevue, Washington.
 

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