Suspended officials defend actions, say Speaker approved some expenses he criticizes

Two senior legislature officials, suspended with pay pending a criminal investigation, have defended themselves against allegations of “flagrant overspending,” saying that the Speaker approved some of the expenses he later questioned.

Clerk of the legislature Craig James and sergeant-at-arms Gary Lenz submitted explanations to Speaker Darryl Plecas and house leaders on Thursday.

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In their statements, leaked to the Vancouver Sun, they offer detailed explanations for retirement payouts and large purchases billed to the taxpayer such as a $13,000 wood splitter and trailer, expensive suits and cuff links.

James called Plecas’s report “inaccurate” and “illogical,” saying Plecas approved many of the expenses flagged in the report as evidence of overspending.

“If the Speaker harboured concerns regarding my expenses, I cannot fathom why he explicitly approved them,” James wrote.

“The concerns that are now raised take me absolutely by surprise,” James wrote, adding he’s concerned with the actions of Plecas and his adviser Alan Mullen.

Wood splitter approved by legislature group: James

A $3,200 wood splitter and $10,029 work trailer were expensed to the legislative assembly but delivered directly to James’s home, where Plecas alleges the equipment was used by James and Lenz. Lenz said he has never used or seen the wood splitter. James said the wood splitter and trailer were part of “emergency equipment and supplies” procured so the legislature would be able to cut trees and split firewood in the event of a disaster.

James said the purchase was approved by the legislature’s audit working group and possibly the Speaker. James said he was storing the wood splitter and trailer at his house until a concrete pad and path for the trailer could be built. He said he was frustrated that it was taking so long to build the pad and path.

James disputes the section of the report that says the work trailer was not on the legislature grounds as of Nov. 20 and “subsequently materialized.” He said he brought the trailer to the legislature before he was suspended on Nov. 21, and let deputy sergeant-at-arms Randy Ennis know he was dropping it off. After he was removed from the legislative assembly, James arranged through his lawyer to drop off the wood splitter.

James: Plecas raised idea of ‘transitional’ allowance

James received a $257,988 “retirement benefit” in 2012 under then-Speaker Bill Barisoff, even though he did not retire. Plecas alleges that James then asked for another “retirement allowance.”

James said Plecas first raised the idea of a “transitional allowance” for the legislature’s permanent officers, a payment similar to what MLAs receive if they resign or are defeated. Plecas asked James to draft a letter to that effect. According to James, Plecas later rescinded the offer because he worried it would be not be politically popular.

James said Barisoff approved the first retirement allowance, but afterward brought an end to the program.

Lenz says he worked on vacations

Plecas raised questions about the longstanding practice of cash payments made to James and Lenz in lieu of vacation. The two men took very few vacation days each year, which is against legislative assembly policy that staff must use at least 15 vacation days annually. Lenz wrote that his responsibilities as sergeant-at-arms have steadily increased and as a result, he often works long hours, including evenings and weekends to keep up with the volume of work. The workload has made it difficult to schedule personal vacation, Lenz said. He said even when he did take vacations, he still did work. Lenz said in the past two years, he worked 400 hours overtime each year.

“The pay that I have received in lieu of vacation represents work that I have done for the legislative assembly and for which I would otherwise not have been paid,” Lenz wrote.

Ex-Speaker paid assembly for liquor, James says

According to Plecas, he was told that in 2013, James asked legislature staff to load $10,000 worth of liquor into James’s truck, which he intended to bring to Barisoff’s home in the Okanagan. Plecas wrote that one legislative staffer described it as a “theft.” James said he took some alcohol, along with a desk and chair, to Barisoff’s home but “categorically” denied that the liquor was worth $10,000. James recalls that Barisoff wrote a cheque to the legislative assembly for the alcohol.

Lenz said he saw the alcohol being loaded into the clerk’s truck on two occasions, but assumed the alcohol was unused and being returned.

Alleged obstruction of whistleblower probe

The Plecas report alleges that a legislative staffer was fired for questioning a Liberal MLA about billing for taxis and mileage for the same trip. It says that after looking into the complaint, Lenz floated the idea of a forensic audit, but was slapped back by James who told the deputy clerk to “put a stop to this, otherwise we will all wear it.” The whistleblower said publicly the MLA is Linda Reid. James said an independent and confidential investigation found the complaint was mistaken and that no double dipping took place.

James said he learned Mullen was on the verge of taking the report to police, and he told him it was not the proper process, but that instead Lenz has the authority under the Police Act.

James said he was appalled that Plecas appeared “gleeful” at the possibility the Liberal MLA was in trouble.

James says Speaker OK’d trips to U.K., hotel costs

Plecas alleges that during two trips to the U.K. with James and Lenz, the three stayed in luxury hotels, James bought a $1,000 grey suit, saying it was “part of the uniform,” and that James and Lenz expensed hundreds of dollars worth of gifts and souvenirs.

James said the Speaker approved both trips to the U.K. and the itinerary, including the cost of the hotels in London. James said both trips were valuable learning experiences.

James and Lenz said purchases at gift shops were not for personal use, but protocol gifts or items to be used throughout the legislature. Two of the watches purchased were intended as gifts, often to people who retire. The third watch was purchased “at the specific direction of the Speaker,” James said.

James said the suit he purchased was to fit with his plan to modernize the clothing worn in the house. He said moving away from the cumbersome and expensive gowns would save money in the long run. Both Lenz and James said they paid for all expenses for their wives during the trips.

Lenz said the mother-of-pearl cuff links purchased were a gift for deputy clerk Kate Ryan-Lloyd.

“Contrary to the allegations and innuendo put forward by the Speaker, I did not charge the taxpayer for inappropriate expenses,” Lenz wrote, adding that all his expenses were work-related and approved through the proper process.

Lenz denied Plecas’s allegation that the sergeant-at-arms suggested any trip around the world could be justified as a business trip. “I would never take or suggest to anyone else that they should take a frivolous trip at the taxpayers’ expense,” Lenz said.

James says he was asked to cover costs in China trip

Plecas alleges that James billed taxpayers for a $1,100 suitcase and improperly claimed full per diems for meals in China that were paid for by their hosts. James acknowledged that he claimed more in per diems than the Speaker, but he said this is because the Speaker asked him to cover the cost of food and drinks for interpreters, counsellors, drivers and other staff. James said he bought the piece of luggage in Hong Kong as a result of requests by MLAs that a pool of luggage be available at the legislature to be used for official travel.

James: No chance to reply before report was released

James said he was never afforded an opportunity to respond to the concerns or allegations before the report was made public, “before my reputation was demolished on the basis of a one-sided and inaccurate document.”

Both James and Lenz said they wish to return to their positions.

Lenz wrote: “I have done nothing wrong and I wish to return to work. The report contains unfounded allegations of wrongdoing and is an unwarranted stain on my character.”

James denied that he’s closely aligned with the B.C. Liberals, as alleged by Plecas. Instead, he outlined incidents where Plecas, an Independent MLA, seemed to favour the NDP. James said Plecas opted not to discipline rancorous behaviour in the house by government MLAs because “he did not want to upset the NDP.”

The legislative assembly management committee — which is chaired by Plecas and includes house leaders for the NDP, Liberals and Greens — will consider the responses at a future meeting and are expected to discuss whether Lenz and James should remain suspended with pay. An RCMP investigation continues.

kderosa@timescolonist.com

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