Legislature allegations shake province
The reason that two senior employees of the British Columbia Legislative Assembly have been on administrative leave since November was finally revealed Monday as being the result of alleged fraud expense accounts funds, and misappropriation of funds and goods.
Speaker of the House Darryl Plecas shared a report with the legislative assembly management committee on Jan. 21 charting the reasons he had Sergeant-at-Arms Gary Lenz and Clerk of the House Craig James investigated and eventually escorted out of the house by RCMP last fall.
Saanich North and the Islands MLA Adam Olsen was still digesting the contents of the report on Tuesday morning. What he had read and heard so far convinced him the speaker took appropriate action.
“The Speaker is responsible for managing the administration of the legislature. This is his house,” Olsen said. “To me, he undertook a process that he found was necessary. What he has reported is really quite shocking.”
After meeting in camera on Monday, the committee voted to release the full 76-page report to the public, unveiling an itemized timeline of the concerning behaviour that Plecas witnessed firsthand. James and Lenz have denied the allegations, stating they are confident time will prove them to be “completely false and untrue.”
Much of the behaviour described by Plecas allegedly took place on business visits that Lenz and James arranged to places like the U.K. and China. As he recounts, not much actual business took place, but the officials stayed in expensive hotels and had a good time. Plecas alleges that Lenz and James bought gifts and personal items they later charged as expenses. Some personal vacation days were assigned travel costs and meals that were actually provided were expensed.
Plecas says there were also attempts back in Victoria to have him authorize large benefit payments. Truckloads of alcohol and a wood-splitting machine charged to the legislature were alleged by other staffers to have wound up at James’ home.
“Some of the events discussed below involve payments or liabilities worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Other amounts … may appear small in isolation, but their cumulative effect is substantial,” Plecas argues in his report. “As a pattern repeated over the nearly two-year period for which expenses documentation has been reviewed, collectively they amount to, at a minimum, many tens of thousands of dollars of public money, and potentially significantly more.”
Olsen said he will not speculate whether the culture of entitlement outlined in Plecas’ report might stretch beyond the two senior officers named. One thing that has become apparent to him, though, is the importance of having a House Speaker who is not connected to a particular party.
“The Speaker operates as an instrument of the government party for the most part,” Olsen explained. “If the Speaker is independent you get a different kind of leadership from that office. They’re not just trying to protect the party interests.”
“That to me is astounding, that in B.C. politics the public interest is always the last thing the political class considers,” Olsen added.
In addition to releasing the report, the all-party legislative committee voted to have an independent audit of legislature spending and to review its work practices and culture. A separate RCMP investigation into Lenz and James’ actions is also underway.
Olsen said that while he will not be inserting himself into the process as it unfolds, he will be assertive on finding ways to improve democracy and to ensure the public interest always comes first.
“I think it would be not a bad development for British Columbia to ask a broader question about political independence,” Olsen said.”I think it’s important for us to be having this conversation.”