Green Party leader Andrew Weaver said he’s livid about the allegations of misspending by the suspended clerk of the legislature and sergeant-at-arms and said the party would block their return to work.
Craig James and Gary Lenz have been suspended with pay since Nov. 20, when they were marched out of the legislature under police escort amid the cloud of a criminal investigation.
“To be blunt, I do not see how it is possible for our caucus to continue to have confidence in the clerk and the sergeant-at-arms if they were recommended to come back to the legislature,” Weaver said at a Tuesday morning press conference.
Weaver stressed that while the allegations of “flagrant overspending” contained in Speaker Darryl Plecas’s report have not yet been proven, if true, the behaviour is “absolutely abhorrent.”
“That individuals in charge of this public institution would feel entitled to live lavishly with taxpayer money, expensing mother-of-pearl cufflinks when many British Columbians can’t even afford breakfast, is just outrageous.”
Weaver said the most questionable expense was a $3,200 wood splitter that was allegedly purchased and delivered to James’s home. In December 2018, James, through his lawyer, offered to return the $3,200 wood splitter. Instead, it was seized by the RCMP. Both the wood splitter and a wood trailer now sit on the lawn of the B.C. legislature.
The fact that many of the questionable expenses were approved by financial overseers speaks to a “culture of entitlement” in the legislative assembly, Weaver said. He thanked the whistle blowers and condemned attempts to conceal the alleged misspending.
The house leaders will have to decide whether to fire James and Lenz, continue their suspensions with pay or reinstate them, Weaver said. It’s unclear whether the house leaders will wait until the criminal investigation is complete to make this decision.
At the all-party committee that oversees financial management of the legislature, house leaders agreed to write the terms of reference for a comprehensive audit of the offices overseen by the legislative assembly.
Weaver said the forensic audit should go back several years, including to the tenure of Speaker Bill Barisoff.
“This is not about someone taking a pen … this is about a systemic culture of abuse and we need to get to the bottom of this.”
According to the report released Monday, Lenz and James were allegedly responsible for “flagrant overspending on luxurious trips overseas with questionable business rationales” and the purchase of tens of thousands of dollars worth of personal items billed to the public over less than two years. The two also allegedly received hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of inappropriate cash payouts in lieu of vacation, showed a lack of oversight or appropriate protocols in awarding employment benefits, and attempted to obtain highly questionable further benefits “totalling millions of dollars.”
Liberal house leader Mary Polak has questioned why Plecas approved the questionable expenses and accompanied James and Lenz on the international business trips.
At a press conference Monday, the Speaker’s chief of staff Alan Mullen said Plecas did approve some expenses but in other cases, the speaker would sign off on a set of expenses and that approval form would be attached to other expense packages.
Plecas had concerns, Mullen said, about accompanying James and Lenz on their August 2018 trip to the UK, which took place in the midst of the speaker’s investigation into questionable expenses. According to Mullen, he and Plecas went to the RCMP to ask for advice on attending the trip. Mullen said police told them it might raise alarms with Lenz and James if Plecas backed out so he should go and observe.
When asked whether the report should be considered a bombshell, Mullen said most British Columbians would be shocked at the amount of tax dollars being spent inappropriately. But Mullen warned that there’s more to come in the course of the RCMP investigation.
“Knowing what I know and knowing what the speaker knows, in the grand scheme of things, and what’s coming down the pipe … this might be just a hand grenade and the bomb is yet to come.”
None of the allegations have been proven in court and the RCMP investigation continues.
In a joint statement Monday, clerk of the legislature Craig James and sergeant-at-arms Gary Lenz said Plecas’s allegations against them are “false and untrue.” They said Plecas has harmed their families by preparing a report in secret to “further blacken our reputations.”
Before the report was released, Mullen and Plecas came under fire for their investigation, which the B.C. Liberals claimed overstepped their authority. It was also revealed that Plecas tried to install Mullen as acting sergeant-at-arms before Lenz was suspended.
Mullen said with limited details around why Lenz and James were suspended, he and the speaker became the story. He said their motives and intentions were questioned but the report proves that their motive was to ensure protection for taxpayers and push for more checks and balances on the B.C. legislature.
Plecas has been vindicated, Weaver said.
“I think not only has the speaker been vindicated, he clearly is going to come out of this as a hero of the average person in British Columbia, a hero that we needed in this place for a long time,” Weaver said. He said the report will go down in history as one of the defining changes in the B.C. legislature and it’s culture of entitlement.