Read here how the clerk and sergeant-at-arms respond to Speaker Darryl Plecas’ damning report on alleged misuse of legislature dollars.
In detailed reports that deny any wrongdoing, the suspended clerk of the legislature, Craig James, and the suspended sergeant-at-arms, Gary Lenz, dismiss allegations that they misspent taxpayer money as inaccurate and unfair.
The pair have provided in-depth explanations for the most explosive allegations levelled at them in a January report by Speaker Darryl Plecas, such as wasting taxpayers’ money on a $13,000 wood splitter and trailer, a $1,200 suit, a $1,100 suitcase and $10,000 in alcohol, as well as lucrative retirement allowances and life-insurance policies.
“I have not engaged in wrongdoing or misconduct,” writes James, who says he is willing to cooperate with the RCMP investigation but “they have not taken me up on that offer.”
On Thursday, James and Lenz, who were suspended on Nov. 20, sent their responses to the legislative assembly management committee> the responses were not made public until the issue of publication could be considered at a meeting of the committee.
However, Postmedia has obtained copies of the responses.
James called the speaker’s criticisms “illogical,” noting Plecas himself approved some of the clerk’s expenses. “He expressed no concerns. How could he approve the claims and ask that they be processed expeditiously if there was anything wrong with them? The concerns that are now raised take me absolutely by surprise,” he writes.
James and Lenz admit to minor transgressions, such as too many magazine subscriptions.
Both defended their record at the legislature, with James arguing he made many changes that vastly improved oversight.
James’ report accelerates a tit-for-tat war of words with Plecas over partisanship, as both the clerk and the Speaker are supposed to be politically neutral roles.
He denies Plecas’s allegation that he favoured the Liberals, and alleged Plecas favoured the NDP when he declined to take the clerk’s advice about disciplining a member of the current government over rancorous behaviour in the house. Plecas “did not want to upset the NDP,” James alleges.
When a whistleblower came forward last year with concerns about alleged expense violations by Liberal MLA Linda Reid, a former speaker, James alleges that Plecas appeared gleeful. James says an independent review found the complainant was mistaken, but the allegation against Reid was still included in Plecas’s report.
James says he was denied access to legislature files, so had to rely on his memory for explanations to the criticisms in Plecas’ report. Here are some of his key arguments:
• $257,000 cheque: Plecas claims that James received a $257,000 retirement allowance in 2012, and asked for a second hefty payment in 2018. In response, James said former speaker Bill Barisoff approved the first payment but afterward brought to an end the program that allowed for it. As for the second request, James said it was the Plecas’s idea to offer “transitional allowances” to permanent legislature employees, akin to what MLAs receive following a defeat. Then, James claimed, Plecas rescinded the offer because he worried it would not be “politically popular.”
• Woodsplitter and trailer: Plecas said a $3,200 wood splitter and a $10,000 trailer with work tools were expensed to the legislature, but that it was being stored at James’ home. In James’ report, he said the purchase was approved by the legislature’s audit working group, and potentially by Plecas, too. He said the items were purchased for “proper purposes” related to “earthquake preparedness and disaster recovery,” such as being able to cut fallen trees to rescue people and also for firewood if there was no heat or electricity to the building. He said they were just being stored at his house until a concrete pad and path was built on the legislative grounds for the wood splitter and trailer. James alleges it took longer than anticipated to find a contractor willing to build the concrete pad, and that he became frustrated by storing the items at his home.
• $10,000 in liquor: Plecas said he was told that in 2013 that James loaded $10,000 in liquor into his truck and drove it to the Interior, where he gave it to Barisoff. James denied the load of booze was this valuable and that Barisoff gave him a cheque payable to the legislative assembly to pay for the bottles.
• Excessive travel expenses: Plecas detailed a trip to the U.K. he took with James and Lenz, alleging they stayed in expensive hotels, the clerk and sergeant-at-arms expensed a $1,200 suit that was deemed to be a work “uniform,” and that they did little work. In his response, James says the speaker approved the trip’s itinerary and travel arrangements, insisted it was a valuable work trip and listed multiple meetings they had, and said the new work suit was an effort to “modernize” what was worn in legislature when the house is sitting — to replace “cumbersome and expensive gowns” traditionally worn.
“Transitioning to modern business attire for everyday use in the legislative assembly will lead to a savings of money, given the thousands of dollars that we spend each year on garments worn by the table officers and presiding officers,” James says.
• $1,100 suitcase: Plecas wrote that James bought this luggage in Hong Kong and expensed it. James replied that he bought it in response to requests by MLAs that a pool of luggage be available at the legislature for official travel.
• Corruption watch: James took particular aim at a House of Commons gift shop watch, which Plecas alleged in his report James purchased for him without his permission. Plecas’s chief of staff, Alan Mullen, has since publicly described it as “the corruption watch” in media interviews. “Three watches were purchased,” James wrote in his report.
“Two were protocol gifts, to be presented to people who provide exemplary service to the legislative assembly, typically at retirement … such items are often purchased in advance, and are either kept in a vault or on display at the legislature before being provided to an individual. “The third watch was purchased at the specific direction of the Speaker.” James also said “the Speaker asked me to purchase House of Commons cufflinks for him, which I did” and said other cufflinks purchased were for the deputy Speaker and other table officers “for official use” and not for him.
• Recall motivations: James’s reply indicated Plecas was extraordinarily preoccupied with the possibility of a recall campaign in his Abbotsford riding, stemming from his contentious departure from the B.C. Liberal party in 2017 to take the Speaker’s job. “Beginning shortly after his election as Speaker, Mr. Plecas repeatedly expressed concern regarding the potential that he would be recalled by the voters in his riding,” James wrote. “The Speaker told me that he ‘needed to find something that will help me avoid being recalled.’”
• First class flights: Plecas has said he reluctantly participated on international trips to destinations like the United Kingdom and United States in order to conduct his undercover investigation into misspending by James and Lenz.
But both men pushed back, alleging on one 2018 trip to Richmond, Virginia, the Speaker and his aide abandoned their scheduled meetings on security issues and went sightseeing on the public dime. “While the Speaker and Mr. Mullen travelled to the conference, I was surprised to see that they missed significant portions of it,” wrote Lenz. “Mr. Mullen told me that on one day they drove to Washington, D.C. and went sightseeing. I have no idea how this was accounted for in terms of vacation time, expenses etc.”
In another example, Lenz wrote that Plecas told him “he was looking forward to travelling business class in the Air Canada ‘Dreamliner’” plane to the United Kingdom. “The Speaker encouraged me to do the same,” wrote Lenz. “However, I advised the Speaker of my practice to travel economy on my business trips to save the taxpayers funds whenever possible, even where travelling overnight (as happened on this trip). He replied that I was making him look bad.”
• Headphones: The response of James and Lenz attempt, in other places, to provide rationale for purchases that have caught the public ire. James expensed $504.44 for Bose noise-cancelling headphones, a purchase James argued in his response was because, “I suffer from a condition which causes ear problems when flying arising from a combination of sound and cabin pressure. The noise cancelling headphones were purchased to alleviate that condition.”
• Life insurance: Plecas accused James of asking him to approve a $1 million life insurance policy. In response, James says that Plecas encouraged him to pursue this policy, and that he drove to Penticton to get former speaker Barisoff to sign off on the idea because Barisoff had previously said James was entitled to it. James said he did nothing wrong, because it would be up to the legislative assembly management committee ultimately approve or reject the policy.
• Interfering with a whistleblower: After “AB” came forward with concerns about Reid’s expenses, Plecas alleges Lenz said he thought a forensic audit was needed, but James told his deputy clerk to “rein Gary in and put a stop to this, otherwise we will all wear it.” James denies this is true. James also said Mullen was about to take AB’s complaint to the police, which he said was not the proper procedure — that it should be handled by Lenz, who he described as having responsibilities under the Police Act. “I never suggested anything should be covered up, suppressed, or concealed.”
A review determined the allegations against Reid were false, wrote Lenz. “That the review showed was that the taxi charges were for the member’s travel in the Lower Mainland to the Helijet terminal and the mileage charges were for the member’s travel in Victoria once having arrived there by Helijet. The charges were not for the same travel but for different components of the journey. … “Having determined this, we advised Mr. Mullen and the complainant that their concerns were incorrect.”
• Political motivations: Much of Plecas’s report centred on allegations that James was a partisan Liberal supporter, while serving as the non-partisan Clerk, pointing to meetings with former Liberal attorney general Geoff Plant and former leader Christy Clark. James replied that Plant was the legislature’s lawyer on a matter before the court. He countered that it was Plecas who was concerned about upsetting the New Democrats who had courted him to become Speaker in their minority parliament. “The Speaker and I did have a difference of views as to how to best handle rancorous matters in the house, the Speaker on more than one occasion saying to me that he did not wish to follow my advice regarding disciplining a minister or government private member because ‘he did not want to upset the NDP.’”
More to come