As MLAs returned to Victoria on Tuesday, the spending scandal at the legislature was top of mind, and some action is already being taken to address the Speaker’s explosive report detailing the alleged misuse of taxpayer money.
Also Tuesday, before the government’s throne speech was delivered, Premier John Horgan told CKNW radio that he knew of no MLAs who are under police investigation. His comments were in response to Speaker Darryl Plecas telling CTV last week that MLAs “broke the law.”
In an interview with Postmedia, Plecas said he did not necessarily know if MLAs were under police investigation, but stood by his earlier comment about law-breaking MLAs with one caveat: he was not talking about any current provincial politicians.
“There are MLAs who have broken the law. And I’m referring to former MLAs, not current sitting MLAs,” he said, refusing to elaborate about how many or who.
When asked about a comment by his chief of staff, Alan Mullen, that people will go to jail at the end of this investigation, Plecas said he would not speculate because he doesn’t know the extent of evidence gathered by police.
When asked by reporters Tuesday, Horgan said he had “no knowledge of any investigation of any MLAs at the legislature.”
“My concern is that we get to the bottom of the initial allegations with respect to the clerk and the sergeant-at-arms,” Horgan said. “These other issues are speculation.”
Plecas’s report, released Jan. 21, accused clerk Craig James and sergeant-at-arms Gary Lenz of “flagrant overspending” that included inappropriate expenses, lavish foreign trips that allegedly involved little work, and questionable retirement and pay benefits. They have been suspended with pay. The document also named two MLAs, both former Speakers, but contained far less information about those two.
The allegations have not been proven in court, and James and Lenz denied any wrongdoing in legal responses they provided last week to the Plecas report. They both want their jobs back.
Plecas, who returned to Victoria on Tuesday for the throne speech, said he hoped the legislative assembly management committee would meet today to discuss his new report, which addresses the lengthy responses by James and Lenz to his original report.
However, the clerk’s office said the next meeting likely will not happen until next week.
One of the concerns raised by Plecas was the purchase of hundreds of dollars of items from gift shops during a business trip to the U.K., such as art, monarchy paraphernalia and watches, that were billed to the legislative assembly.
In his response to Plecas, James denied they were for personal use, insisting he bought some for “protocol gifts.” This included a pair of pricey watches “to be presented to people who provide exemplary service to the legislative assembly, typically at retirement,” which appear to have been purchased from the Palace of Westminster.
On Tuesday, one of the highest-ranking officials in the legislature, who provided an email statement to be used only for background purposes, said a new protocol gifts policy is being drafted. “As most protocol gifts are representative of the legislative assembly or the province of British Columbia, the new policy is unlikely to feature products purchased from other jurisdictions,” said the official.
A request for comment from James’s lawyer was not answered Tuesday.
Receipts for other items allegedly purchased by James from the House of Lords and Windsor Castle appear to include a fine bone china beaker finished in decorative gold, a book on how to greet the Queen, a decorative Buckingham Palace crown, and fancy stationery.
James wrote in his response that his purchases were made for a variety of reasons, which also include “merchandise for display or sale in the legislative assembly’s own gift shop.”
In a call to the B.C. legislature gift shop, an employee who answered the phone stated they tend to sell “things that are related to the legislative assembly,” such as items featuring B.C.’s official tartan or its provincial bird, the Steller’s jay.
A purchasing manager typically buys the gift shop’s inventory, which usually does not include British monarchy items, the employee said.
James’s response also said some of his purchases were for “stationery to be used throughout the office.” But the official in the clerk’s office said office supplies are typically ordered by procurement officers or purchased from local vendors, such as Staples.
One of the most talked-about items in the Plecas report was the purchase of a $3,000 wood splitter and $10,000 trailer, which both James and Lenz said were “approved” by the legislative assembly’s working audit group, and were to be used for emergency preparedness in the event of a disaster.
Minutes for the meetings of the six-person working audit group, which includes James, Lenz and the deputy clerk, are not available online. But another response to Postmedia from the clerk’s office, also for background information only, said the wood splitter was part of a larger emergency-preparedness request and “approved separate from the audit working group process.”
The employee then added: “As noted in the report of Speaker Plecas, the acquisition and other details relating to the wood splitter are subject to an active police investigation.”
In an interview Tuesday, Plecas said he would not comment on the police investigation, but noted that RCMP officers did seize the wood splitter from James’s home after James’s lawyer indicated that his client wanted the equipment off his property.
James, in his response, said he was merely storing the wood splitter at his home until a storage area could be built at the legislature, but added that it was inconvenient because he lived “in a strata and not a rural property.” B.C. Assessment records show James does, indeed, live in a strata — but in a 3,600-square-foot single-family home on a 10,000-square-foot lot in Victoria.