Lawrie McFarlane: Legislature saga increasingly like a Third-World show trial

When Darryl Plecas, Speaker of the legislature, demanded the suspension of its two most senior managers, I wondered just how strong his case was. There were several causes for doubt.

First, Craig James and Gary Lenz both have long and distinguished careers. Why would they place themselves at the risk of what Plecas claimed could be criminal charges? What possible motive had they?

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Both are well paid. If they were going to engage in financial misconduct, which Plecas implied they had, the amounts in question would have to be hefty to justify the jeopardy involved. However, the province’s auditor general has found no such thing.

Then, as Plecas came under fire for the way he treated the two men — they were marched out of the legislature with a police escort — he escalated his claims. The public, he said, would vomit when they heard what had been going on. You always suspect a weak case when the accuser turns up the volume.

But here is what should truly concern us. No arrests have been made, no charges laid, no trial held, no verdict pronounced.

Yet the legislature demanded James and Lenz exonerate themselves. Evidently, the burden of proof has passed from the accuser to the accused. More of that in a moment.

First, two points of contention. One is whether Plecas’s allegations, if true, rise to the level of criminal behaviour.

Basically, he’s complaining about lavish spending by James and Lenz. If he’s right, that could be possible grounds for disciplinary (though not criminal) proceedings.

One obstacle to such a remedy, however, would be that lavish spending — and I am not conceding that on the part of James and Lenz — has been a well-established feature of the legislature for decades.

And under labour law, you cannot suspend or dismiss an employee for simply following longstanding precedent, however unseemly that precedent might be. You begin with a solemn warning that it had better stop. You assign someone to act as an overseer.

If the behaviour continues, you have grounds for disciplinary measures. As best we know, Plecas did none of those things.

The second point of contention is whether, if the Speaker’s allegations are indeed true, the behaviour in question was justified.

For now we have the rebuttals demanded of James and Lenz. And here let me ask an indulgence. Of late, every allegation made by the Speaker has been accorded the status of revealed truth.

Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver says the two men should never be allowed back, so serious are their misdeeds. You would think the idea that people are innocent until proved otherwise might ring a bell with a one-time university professor.

However, if proclaimed beliefs are to be taken as gospel, let’s accord James and Lenz the same courtesy.

What they argue is that legitimate explanations exist for the claimed wrongdoing. For want of space, I cannot cover all of the ground. Readers who want more of the details can go to the story by the Times Colonist’s Katie DeRosa (“Speaker approved some expenses he questioned in report: officers,” Feb. 8).

But let’s take the most explosive of Plecas’s allegations. He suggested that James and Lenz purchased a wood splitter and trailer for $13,200, and that James had them brought to his house, allegedly for his own use. The funds disbursed came from the legislature’s budget.

I call this explosive because news outlets seized on the purchase as clear evidence the two men were feathering their nests at the expense of taxpayers.

James says the wood splitter was bought as a fall-back option in case of a power outage at the legislature. The building still has wood-burning fireplaces.

The expenditure was approved by the legislature’s audit working group (scarcely what you would expect of a dastardly scheme), and James had the equipment stored at his house as a favour until a concrete pad could be built on legislature grounds.

Whether this was an ideal solution to a power outage is debatable. But it is an example of how sinister intentions can be imputed to potentially defensible actions.

Where we go from here, no one knows. What we can say is that the Speaker’s handling of this investigation has taken on the aspect of a third-world show trial, without charges even being laid.

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