Plecas puts job on the line over financial ‘outrage’

Speaker calls for audits of offices of legislature clerk, sergeant-at-arms

B.C. legislature Speaker Darryl Plecas is calling for audits of the offices of the legislature clerk and sergeant-at-arms and has threatened to resign if the outcome does not outrage the public.

During a meeting Thursday of the all-party committee that oversees financial management of B.C.’s legislature, Plecas went on a tirade alleging widespread financial mismanagement and defended his actions leading up to the suspensions of sergeant-at-arms Gary Lenz and clerk of the house Craig James.

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The senior legislative officers were marched out of the building under police escort on Nov. 20 following a unanimous vote by MLAs to place them on administrative leave while an investigation continued.

Neither the RCMP nor the B.C. Criminal Justice Branch have given any information on the allegations against the men, and Lenz and James have said they have no idea why they are being investigated.

Plecas called for a full forensic audit of his own office and the offices of the clerk and sergeant-at-arms, which he said would illuminate all of his concerns.

His office will come out clean, but as for the other two offices, “If the outcome of those audits did not outrage the public, did not outrage taxpayers, did not make them throw up, I will resign as Speaker,” he said.

“I am completely confident that those audits will show that we have a lot of work to do,” Plecas told the legislative assembly management committee meeting. He suggested the audits be discussed at the next committee meeting, likely in January.

Plecas, Independent MLA for Abbotsford South, said “very serious concerns” were brought to him early in his tenure as Speaker “about certain activities that were taking place within the legislative assembly.”

He said when he learned of the behaviour, which he believed was criminal in nature, he “felt a great duty to safeguard the integrity of this institution.”

The job of all committee members is “to make sure that public dollars are spent appropriately,” he said.

Liberal house leader Mary Polak asked Plecas whether the allegations relate to fraud, adding that information is required before the committee approves the legislative assembly’s financial statements for the year ending March 31, 2018.

Plecas would not answer the question directly and became angry when Polak questioned his authority to conduct an investigation into Lenz and James. Information from that investigation was passed to the RCMP in August.

The Speaker took issue with the word “investigation,” saying the issues were so glaring they didn’t require much digging. “I didn’t have to investigate anything to see wrongdoing,” he said, adding: “I have a duty to taxpayers to make sure if I ever see something that I think is inappropriate in terms of spending, financial matters, that I pursue that with due diligence.

“There’s not a taxpayer in this province who wouldn’t want me to do that,” Plecas continued. “They’d also want me to pay attention to the workplace environment, and to make sure people are treated fairly. Under my watch, there will never, ever be anything buried here.”

After the meeting, Polak said if the allegations are as serious as Plecas suggests, it’s unfair to ask people to wait until January to hear more details.

“If these are things so serious, that they would make you throw up, that they would make you vomit, if they’re that serious, my goodness, we’re going to wait over the Christmas holidays and not find out what’s going on?” Polak told reporters. “If it relates to this house, if it relates to the way in which this assembly operates, taxpayers have a right to know.”

Polak described the meeting as “one of the strangest meetings I have ever been involved in” and called Plecas’s outburst “odd and disturbing.”

She said the meeting was plagued with contradictions, with Plecas first saying he could not discuss the allegations facing Lenz and James due to the police investigation, then making significant disclosures that should concern the public.

Plecas took issue with the media’s coverage of the suspensions, saying he’s been unfairly criticized and reduced to a “cartoon character,” and said the notion that special adviser Allen Mullen was hired to conduct an investigation is ridiculous. “We’ve heard this reference numerous times to Mr. Mullen being hired as an investigator. Nothing, nothing, nothing can be further from the truth,” he said.“Every single thing he did and I did leading up to giving police information was done not well, but perfectly.”

Polak said it is not possible for the committee to consider and approve the legislative assembly’s budget for 2019-20 until there’s a “clean” audit for previous fiscal years.

Carol Bellringer, the B.C. auditor general, has completed an audit of the legislative assembly’s finances, and her audit findings report, delivered to the finance and audit committee on Nov. 22, stated there were “no instances of fraud or suspected fraud.”

However, Bellringer said this week that she can’t sign off on the legislative assembly’s financial statements for the year ending March 31, 2018, until she knows more about the allegations facing Lenz and James.

Plecas chairs the eight-member legislative assembly management committee, which includes acting clerk Kate Ryan-Lloyd and acting sergeant-at-arms Randall Ennis, NDP house leader Mike Farnworth, Green house leader Sonia Furstenau and Liberal house leader Polak.

Polak, Farnworth and Furstenau met with Plecas the night before the legislature voted to suspend Lenz and James.

Plecas reminded house leaders in a letter last month that there was unqualified unanimity at the Nov. 19 meeting that it would not be appropriate for Lenz and James to continue in the face of an “active criminal investigation.”

However, the Liberals have said when members voted for the motion, the majority were not aware that the investigation was initiated by Plecas, who attempted to put forward Mullen as acting sergeant-at-arms.

Lenz, the 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.

James is the chief administrative officer for the legislature. He has been clerk since 2011 and has a lifetime appointment to the position. 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.

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