The impasse between Speaker Darryl Plecas and the two suspended senior officers of the legislature might be resolved by a retired judge.
But not before Plecas flayed clerk Craig James and sergeant-at-arms Gary Lenz for their spending habits one more time, accusing them of still more exorbitant expense claims for dubious reasons and questioning the veracity of their version of events.
Hours of closed-door manoeuvres in a committee room Thursday might have plotted a resolution to the standoff that followed the pair’s suspensions on Nov. 20.
MLAs on the legislative assembly management committee have looked alternately horrified and confused over the affair in the past several weeks. But there was a degree of confidence after Thursday’s meeting that they might have found at least the direction for a way out of this mess. The NDP, Liberal and Green house leaders appeared together at a news conference to explain it, a sign they are now all on the same page.
Here’s what it entails:
• An “eminent jurist,” such as a retired federal or provincial Supreme Court judge, is going to be retained to weigh all the spending complaints Plecas has lodged against the two. The judge will report to the legislature as a whole.
• A rushed earlier decision to order an independent audit of the legislature was rescinded. Instead, B.C. auditor general Carol Bellringer, who was sidelined by that first decision, will conduct it.
• A workplace review, to handle what Plecas has said are numerous complaints surfacing from past and present employees about mismanagement during the pair’s years on the job, will proceed.
• After starting a year-long secret investigation into the pair and building enough of a case to take to the police, which led to the suspensions, Plecas is bowing out. He’s recusing himself from the next stages of the process.
The time frame for all this wasn’t specified, but it’s clear the committee wants it done as quickly as possible.
The prospect of waiting much longer for the RCMP criminal investigation and the work of two special prosecutors to conclude is no longer the prime consideration.
The report from the jurist and possibly the auditor general will likely conclude sooner. Those will resolve the outstanding question that is looming larger by the day: How long will taxpayers keep paying the salaries of Lenz and James? Based on Thursday’s developments, it won’t be much longer.
The two were hurriedly suspended from their six-figure-salary jobs will full pay. No reason was given for the suspensions at the time, but two months later Plecas released a detailed report accusing them of padding expense accounts and billing taxpayers for thousands of excess dollars. He also raised questions about hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of dubious retirement allowances paid out, and various other management issues.
James and Lenz responded with lengthy rebuttals, defending their expenses as reasonable costs incurred for the good of the legislature and questioning Plecas’s motives. He fired back Thursday with a 32-page answer that was even more incendiary than his first report.
Plecas poured scorn on the justifications they offered for his earlier complaints. He raised suspicions about more questionable trips, like a self-invited trip to Seattle to study “large-scale evacuation” protocols that amounted to attending a Mariners baseball game.
B.C. also hosted official meetings about earthquake preparedness. One included a “tsunami watch” tour of Juan de Fuca Strait with explanations of seismic activity.
It was a $1,000 whale-watching trip.
One sign of how the legislature views the suspended pair was obvious Thursday. Vancouver lawyer Mark Andrews was in the public gallery as the committee began and stood up to register the duo’s desire to be heard before the report was released.
Plecas was chairing the meeting. He more or less ignored the request and there were no objections from MLAs. The two will likely have to make their case to the jurist.
Maybe they can offer more convincing explanations, counter the latest batch of charges, withstand the police investigation and succeed in their wish to get their jobs back. But it looks more likely their paycheques are numbered according to how many weeks it takes a retired judge to look into this and send a recommendation to the legislature.