New report into legislature spending by Speaker Darryl Plecas released
VICTORIA — MLAs from all parties overseeing the legislature agreed to release a new report into spending by Speaker Darryl Plecas on Thursday and to hire a retired judge to probe more allegations of wrongdoing at the capital.
Plecas’ new document is a rebuttal to reports provided earlier this month by suspended clerk Craig James and sergeant-at-arms Gary Lenz, in which they defended themselves from allegations in an initial report by Plecas in January alleging misuse of taxpayer money.
In the report released Thursday, Plecas chips away at the explanations provided by James and Lenz, who have strongly denied any wrongdoing.
For example, Plecas highlighted an August 2017 Legislative Assemblies Business Continuity Network “conference” in Washington State, which James and Lenz attended with 10 other people including their wives and dignitaries from Scotland. James, in his earlier response to the speaker, maintained this trip was legitimate and useful.
But Plecas alleges Washington State is not a member of their network, and there was no conference to attend there. Plecas alleges an “earthquake preparedness” event on James’ itinerary was actually a whale watching expedition. The itinerary also notes the group was learning about large-scale evacuations at Safeco Field in Seattle, but Plecas claims the reality is that they attended a baseball game there — expensing $1,073.32 for 13 tickets.
NDP, Liberal and Green party house leaders also said Thursday they will hire a retired judge to probe new allegations raised by Plecas.
At the same time, Plecas has recused himself from future investigations.
“We’ve reached a place in all of this where so much of the information was presented by myself, I think most people would say at some point I should step back and say look it should be somebody other than me who is making comment,” Plecas said Thursday afternoon.
“What we’ll see is the police will do their thing, that will of course be independent of any observations I’ve made, we will have the auditor general do a review independent of anything I say, we will have a work review process that will be independent of what say. And then one could argue the facts are independent of what I say. So collectively all of that leaves me very confident where this will end.”
NDP house leader Mike Farnworth said the cooperation between the parties was necessary for the good of the legislature. The review by the retired judge is in addition to a workplace review and an forensic audit by the B.C. Auditor General.
“I think all three parties around that table take this issue very seriously, we take the institution very seriously and we work together to come up with a way forward along with the Speaker and we think that we’ve got the right approach and the right path,” he said.
“I know everyone likes to think we’re always at each other’s throats but the reality is we have to come together on this issue. This institution demands that. The public demands that.”
Farnworth said he does not expect to see any additional reports from Plecas, because a new independent process is now underway.
He said MLAs want the process completed quickly
“We are certainly not looking at a year or two years, we want this to be done as expeditiously and as quickly as possible,” said Farnworth.
The meeting was earlier crashed by Mark Andrews, the lawyer for suspended clerk James, who said he was also speaking for suspended sergeant-at-arms Lenz. Andrews rose to interrupt MLAs before they went into camera.
“I want to make clear to the committee that in my view they should not be publishing a further report from the speaker which have not been provided to Mr. James or Mr. Lenz despite requests and upon which they have had no opportunity to comment,” said Andrews.
“They should be considered an opportunity to comment on those before they are considered and relied upon by the committee and potentially the house and they should be given the opportunity to respond to any further allegations or comments by the Speaker or Mr. Mullen before those reports are published.”
In his new report, Plecas wrote that the house leaders need to decide whether they continue to have confidence in the two suspended officials, and whether they can “realistically” return to their high-ranking posts.
“These are very highly paid senior officers and the Legislature and the public are entitled to absolutely scrupulous conduct from them that does not undermine the trust placed in them, and the dignity and reputation of the Legislative Assembly,” he wrote.
The legislature spending scandal began in November when clerk Craig James and sergeant-at-arms Gary Lenz were suspended and escorted out of the building by police.
Speaker Darryl Plecas revealed to MLAs that he and his special advisor Alan Mullen had been secretly investigating both men for almost a year.
In January, Plecas released a report into alleged misspending by both men, including a $13,000 woodsplitter and trailer that James had stored at his home, lavish overseas trips, a $1,000 piece of luggage, $5,000 in magazine subscriptions, questionable retirement benefits and large-scale payouts of cash in lieu of vacation time.
As a result, MLAs voted to authorize a forensic audit into legislature spending, as well as an independent workplace review.
James and Lenz responded Feb. 8 denying they had done anything wrong, arguing Plecas himself approved many of the expenses and that they followed proper policies. However, they did admit to minor transgressions like inappropriate magazine subscriptions and some daily meal allowance mistakes.
Two special prosecutors are overseeing an RCMP investigation into James and Lenz. Neither man has been charged with any crime. Plecas has said additional allegations were given to police outside of his report, but has refused to make them public.
MLAs voted in February to increase protections for whistleblowers in the legislature, allow the merit commission to audit hiring and place the administrative functions of the legislative assembly under the province’s Freedom of Information law.