Over and over again, you learn how far politicians can run off track when they’re allowed to do business in secret.
There was an update Wednesday on the horror story auditor general John Doyle recounted last summer about the B.C. legislature’s slapdash accounting practices. It adds new details to confirm the impression that the legislature — ironically enough — was one of the sloppiest outfits in the entire public sector when it comes to accounting for its spending.
And at the root of all the questionable calls and lax auditing was the private little club called the legislative assembly management committee.
It had MLAs from both sides and was ruled by Speaker Bill Barisoff for the past eight years. The long-standing problems didn’t start under his watch. But he sure didn’t make any effort to reform them, either — until Doyle landed on him with both feet.
The Speaker is an anonymous functionary to the vast majority of taxpayers. But inside the building, he reigns supreme, making decisions that affect every facet of politicians’ lives.
So it was amusing Wednesday — with one full day left in his reign — to see at least one politician start pointing the finger in his direction.
It started with new details from Doyle about a special retirement allowance that was approved almost 30 years ago for the clerks of the legislature, the executive group that actually runs the place.
They weren’t eligible for public pensions at the time, so they were given a bit extra each year, to a maximum of one year’s extra pay after 20 years service.
Over the years they became pensionable. But $660,000 was paid out to four clerks in early 2012 just before the program was terminated.
Doyle found no documentation as to how appropriate the payout was, since most of the recipients were by then eligible for full government pensions, as well.
And of course, there was not a word of public disclosure about the payout. Just as there was no word of the $2 million in “transitional allowances” paid to departing MLAs after the 2009 election.
Doyle also found “unusual compensation” plans for the senior clerks, which raise questions about whether they are contractors or employees.
If that’s not confusing enough, Doyle also wrote an update on Liberal MLA Eric Foster’s Vernon constituency office.
In January it came to light — after Foster chaired the committee that rejected Doyle for a second term as auditor general — that Doyle had raised questions about how a renovation job was handled.
A bill was submitted with no receipts, and a smaller amount was eventually paid, deducted from Foster’s allowance to make up the sum.
There was also concern that the landlord was married to a member of Foster’s office staff, although the MLA was cleared on that score by the conflict-of-interest commissioner.
Doyle’s Wednesday update delves deeper into that job, and it only raises more questions.
The legislature’s controls were overridden directly by the Speaker, who ordered the bill paid. Doyle said Barisoff “may not have been aware” of some concerns.
Those include the fact that $51,000 worth of the work was for a major renovation of the building, including a four-tonne heat pump, a new furnace, new wiring and new plumbing.
It looks to Doyle as if taxpayers paid for a lot more than just a few alterations for a tenant — the legislature paid for a complete renovation.
“It is still unclear as to why the legislative assembly paid for this work,” he said.
It’s also unclear why Foster’s allowance has been dinged for the past few years to make up the $67,000 cost.
Foster wasn’t much help in explaining it. He told reporters he didn’t have anything to do with it, the landlord submitted bills and the legislature comptroller paid them.
The Speaker’s response to all this was to seize on Doyle’s grudging acknowledgment that they’re making some progress on smartening up.
He said Foster’s renovation was an “anomaly,” and the secret $660,000 payout to the clerks was an obligation that had to be met.
NDP caucus chairman Shane Simpson, who sits on the legislature’s management committee, said all the revelations are news to him.
“It’s the first we’ve heard of this.”
He said there are significant issues and “the Speaker probably has questions he needs to answer.”
With one day left in the session, and in Barisoff’s tenure in the big chair, don’t count on it.