Speaker’s office seeks fast review of legislature officials’ actions

The retired jurist tasked with reviewing whether clerk Craig James and sergeant-at-arms Gary Lenz have engaged in misconduct should report back within weeks, not months, so that MLAs can decide whether the two senior legislative officers should continue to be paid while on suspension, the Speaker’s chief of staff said Friday.

“We don’t want to this to go on for another few months before we have a next step,” Alan Mullen told reporters on Friday.

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The all-party committee that oversees the legislature’s finances announced Thursday that a retired judge would conduct an independent review into whether the alleged overspending by James and Lenz amounts to misconduct.

The judge, who has not been appointed, will not conduct a new investigation, but will review Speaker Darryl Plecas’s two reports, which accuse James and Lenz of taking lavish trips overseas and spending taxpayers’ money on gifts, luxury items and a $13,000 wood splitter and work trailer, as well the men’s responses to those allegations.

The review, which is separate from an RCMP investigation, could help MLAs decide whether the pair should remain suspended with pay. James was paid a salary of $347,090 in 2018, and Lenz was paid $218,167.

House leaders for the NDP, Liberals and Greens are to draft the terms of reference, a process from which Plecas has recused himself.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, NDP house leader Mike Farnworth did not give a time frame for the review, saying only “we would like to get this done as soon as possible.” He said the review will be “focused and expeditious.”

Lenz and James have been suspended with pay since Nov. 20, when they were escorted out of the legislature by police.

In a report released Thursday, Plecas disputed James’s explanation for the purchase of a $3,200 wood splitter and a $10,029 work trailer.

James said they were approved by the legislature’s audit working group and were to be used as “emergency equipment and supplies” to cut trees and split firewood at the legislature in the event of a disaster. He said the equipment was being stored at his home until a concrete pad could be built at the legislature and that he was frustrated it was taking so long because he did not have a place to store it on his strata property.

However, Plecas said James had a concrete pad installed at his home, located on a 10,500-square-foot lot with large trees. The report includes a Google Street View photo from 2014 showing a dirt patch beside the driveway and a photo from October 2018 showing the work trailer sitting on new pavement. The wood splitter showed signs of use, Plecas said.

Plecas also reported that James spent at least $1,300 on gifts from the United Kingdom, including chocolate bars, mustard, stamps and pens.

James said the items were purchased as “protocol gifts” or to be displayed around the legislature or for future sale in the legislature’s gift shop.

Plecas responded that the explanation is not believeable.

“Even if that or the other justifications given were true, why are the taxpayers of British Columbia paying the high salaries of these senior executives to go shopping all over the world for small gifts?” he asked.

Plecas also disputed Lenz’s response that his heavy workload made it difficult to schedule personal vacation, which is why he regularly took cash payments in lieu of vacation, something James also did. The Speaker said this was against legislative assembly policy.

Plecas said Lenz did not have a stressful workday. Staff told Plecas that most of the heavy lifting was done by the deputy sergeant-at-arms and that Lenz would spend most days meeting with people over coffee.

“The point is that these officers had capable deputies, solid staff support and job requirements that were not overly onerous,” Plecas wrote.

“There was no legitimate reason they couldn’t take their holidays in accordance with the applicable policies rather than bank them and cause the legislature to pay them out.”

The retired judge’s review will run parallel to auditor general Carol Bellringer’s forensic audit of the legislature’s finances and a workplace review that will look into allegations that legislative staff members were fired after raising concerns about questionable expenses.

Mullen said about 30 staffers or former staffers have come forward to raise concerns about the workplace.
 

kderosa@timescolonist.com

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