Washington legislature clerk questions ‘work-related’ trip by Lenz and James

The clerk of the Washington state legislature said he thought it “a bit odd” that two senior B.C. legislative officials were planning a 2017 trip to talk about emergency preparedness, because they had already received that information during a trip four years earlier.

B.C. Speaker Darryl Plecas’s second report into the spending habits of clerk Craig James and sergeant-at-arms Gary Lenz alleges that an earthquake-preparedness conference in Washington state in August 2017, organized by James, included a misleading agenda that disguised tourist activities — such as whale-watching and a Major League Baseball game — as work-related events.

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Washington state clerk Bernard Dean said James, Lenz and former Speaker Linda Reid visited Olympia in 2013 to learn about how the legislature continued to operate after a 6.8-magnitude earthquake damaged the building’s dome in 2001.

“So when they contacted us four years later, we just thought it was a bit odd that they were wanting to basically receive the exact same briefing that we had already provided to them,” Dean told the Times Colonist on Friday.

The officials were given a three-hour briefing and tour of the building, Dean said.

The three-day trip cost B.C. taxpayers $10,352, Plecas said in his report.

Dean said there was no conference to attend and the trip was organized by James. The 12-person delegation consisted of Lenz and James and their wives, and officials from the House of Commons, the Senate, the Scottish Parliament, the British Parliament and the Ontario legislature.

In his Feb. 7 response to Plecas’s initial allegations, James said the trip was organized as part of the Legislative Assemblies Business Continuity Network, an organization comprising legislatures around the world that share best practices on “business continuity and disaster preparedness.”

Washington state is not part of the network, and Dean said he hadn’t heard of the group until he was contacted by James.

“They just said they were coming down and they wanted to get a briefing on these issues,” he said. “We were not a part of their conference or their trips.”

In a followup report released Thursday, Plecas alleged that an activity listed as “tsunami watch” in the Haro and Juan de Fuca straits was actually a $1,024 whale-watching trip for eight people, and an exercise in “large-scale evacuations” at Safeco Field was actually $1,073 worth of tickets to a Seattle Mariners baseball game.

In his report, Plecas raised concerns that James and Lenz seemed to be meeting with the same people about the same topics in locations around the world.

He cited a December 2017 trip to Scotland as an example. The trip was arranged to meet with an expert in “business continuity” at the Scottish Parliament, but that same official was in B.C. and attended the Washington trip four months earlier, Plecas wrote.

James and Lenz deny any wrongdoing, saying their trips were important fact-finding missions for the safe running of the legislature.

Plecas counters that many of the taxpayer-funded work trips organized around the world by James and Lenz were de facto holidays.

He said many staff members were troubled by the overspending but feared retribution if they spoke up.

“The impression that the senior officers were unaccountable and travelling all over the place had a very negative impact on the culture and morale of the workplace,” Plecas wrote in his report.

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

The two men have been suspended with pay since Nov. 20, when they were escorted out of the legislature by police. An RCMP investigation is underway.

kderosa@timescolonist.com

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