Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver says he’s livid about allegations of misspending by two top officials at the B.C. legislature, adding his party would block their return to work. Clerk of the legislature Craig James and sergeant-at-arms Gary Lenz have been suspended with pay since Nov. 20, when they were marched out of the legislature under police escort amid a criminal investigation.
The two men have issued a statement saying the allegations against them are “false and untrue.” They said allegations made in a report from Speaker Darryl Plecas have harmed their families, and the report was prepared in secret to “further blacken our reputations.”
“To be blunt, I do not see how it is possible for our caucus to continue to have confidence in the clerk and the sergeant-at-arms if they were recommended to come back to the legislature,” Weaver said at a Tuesday news conference.
Weaver stressed that while the allegations of “flagrant overspending” in Plecas’s report have not been proven, the behaviour is “absolutely abhorrent” if true. “That individuals in charge of this public institution would feel entitled to live lavishly with taxpayer money, expensing mother-of-pearl cufflinks when many British Columbians can’t even afford breakfast, is just outrageous.”
Weaver said the most questionable expense was a $3,200 wood splitter that was allegedly purchased and delivered to James’s home. In December 2018, James, through his lawyer, offered to return the wood splitter. Instead, it was seized by the RCMP.
Both the wood splitter and a $10,029 work trailer now sit on the grounds of the B.C. legislature, although it’s unclear how the trailer got there, as it was not at the legislature as of Nov. 20 when James and Lenz were suspended.
The fact that many of the questionable expenses were approved by financial overseers speaks to a “culture of entitlement” in the legislative assembly, Weaver said. He thanked the whistleblowers and condemned attempts to conceal the alleged misspending.
The house leaders will have to decide whether to fire James and Lenz, continue their suspensions with pay or reinstate them, Weaver said. It’s unclear whether the house leaders will wait until the criminal investigation is complete to make the decision.
At the all-party committee that oversees financial management of the legislature, house leaders agreed to write the terms of reference for a comprehensive audit of the offices overseen by the legislative assembly.
Weaver said the forensic audit should go back several years, including to the tenure of Speaker Bill Barisoff.
“This is not about someone taking a pen … this is about a systemic culture of abuse and we need to get to the bottom of this.”
MLAs are required to submit expense forms and receipts online but the clerk and sergeant-at-arms were only required to publicly report the aggregate total of their expenses. In December, acting clerk Kate Ryan-Lloyd said that practice would change and senior legislative officers would be required to post receipts and itemized expenses.
According to Pelcas’s report, released Monday, James and Lenz were responsible for “flagrant overspending on luxurious trips overseas with questionable business rationales” and the purchase of tens of thousands of dollars worth of personal items billed to the public over less than two years.
The report says the two also received hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of inappropriate cash payouts in lieu of vacation, showed a lack of oversight or appropriate protocols in awarding employment benefits, and attempted to obtain highly questionable further benefits “totalling millions of dollars.”
Liberal house leader Mary Polak has questioned why Plecas, an Independent MLA for Abbotsford-South, approved the questionable expenses and accompanied James and Lenz on the international trips.
At a press conference Tuesday, the Speaker’s chief of staff, Alan Mullen, said Plecas did approve some expenses, but in other cases, the Speaker would sign off on a set of expenses and that approval would be attached to other expense packages.
“What we found on a lot of these expenses was Mr. James would sign on Mr. Lenz’s and vice-versa,” Mullen said. “There were some that go to financial services that get sort of questioned and ultimately sort of pushed through.”
Plecas had concerns, Mullen said, about accompanying James and Lenz on their August 2018 trip to the U.K., which took place in the midst of the Speaker’s investigation of questionable expenses.
According to Mullen, he and Plecas went to the RCMP to ask for advice on participating in the trip. Mullen said police told them it might raise alarms with James and Lenz if Plecas backed out, so he should go and observe.
Mullen said most British Columbians would be shocked at the amount of tax dollars being spent inappropriately and warned that there’s more to come in the RCMP investigation.
“Knowing what I know and knowing what the Speaker knows, in the grand scheme of things, and what’s coming down the pipe … this might be just a hand grenade and the bomb is yet to come.”
Mullen said no search warrants have been executed at the B.C. legislature and the documents that support the report’s allegations have already been given to police. The two special prosecutors assigned to the case have declined to receive a copy of Plecas’s report.
Before the report was released, Mullen and Plecas came under fire for their investigation, which the B.C. Liberals claimed overstepped their authority. It was also revealed that Plecas tried to install Mullen as acting sergeant-at-arms before Lenz was suspended.
Mullen said when little information was publicly available about why James and Lenz were suspended, he and the Speaker’s intentions were questioned, but the report proves their motive was to ensure protection for taxpayers and push for more checks and balances on the B.C. legislature.
Mullen said his name was put forward for acting sergeant-at-arms not because of cronyism, but because Plecas felt someone from outside with a “different vision” needed to step in to the role.
Weaver said Plecas has been vindicated.
“I think not only has the Speaker been vindicated, he clearly is going to come out of this as a hero of the average person in British Columbia, a hero that we needed in this place for a long time,” Weaver said. He said the report will be remembered as a defining moment in the B.C. legislature.
None of the allegations has been proven in court and the RCMP investigation continues.
Retired judge Wally Oppal, a special adviser to the Speaker, said it’s “unusual” to release so much information in the middle of a criminal investigation, but Plecas took the step to satisfy public interest.
“Because the public was demanding so much from the Speaker and the Opposition was demanding so much from the Speaker, a very unusual process took place wherein allegations in a criminal case were advanced in the public while they are still in the process of being investigated,” Oppal said.
B.C. RCMP spokeswoman Sgt. Janelle Shoihet would not address whether release of the report will affect the police investigation, only saying in a statement: “We are aware of the report and our investigative actions are independent from actions taken by the Speaker and his team. Our investigation remains active and ongoing and as such we are not in a position to provide or confirm specific information. Ultimately, all of investigative findings will be provided to the special prosecutors for assessment.”
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