B.C. Legislature Speaker Darryl Plecas has agreed to an outside review of the events that led to the suspension of senior managers, while making new allegations about tourist-style trips passed off as emergency preparedness.
An all-party MLA committee voted Thursday to arrange for B.C. Auditor General Carol Bellringer to examine the internal workings of the $80 million legislative assembly budget. An “eminent jurist” is also to be appointed to review the conflicting claims over travel and other expense account irregularities alleged by Plecas.
The committee also agreed to release the responses of James and Lenz to Plecas’s report in January, and a follow-up report in which Plecas describes more travel and expenses he views as having dubious value to the public.
Those trips included one to Washington state in August 2017, for a group described as devoted to emergency preparedness. Events included a visit to Safeco Field in Seattle, with 13 tickets to a Seattle Mariners-Baltimore Orioles game, and three “working dinners” in Washington, for which taxpayers were billed more than $4,500 in expenses.
Another outing of the group in Victoria was described by James as a “tsunami watch” tour of Haro and Juan de Fuca Straits. “The actual activity was in fact a whale watching expedition,” Plecas writes in his follow-up report.
A battle of conflicting statements has broken out since Plecas moved to suspend Clerk of the House Craig James and Sergeant at Arms Gary Lenz in November, then released a report in January detailing his concerns about overspending and inappropriate treatment of legislature staff.
James and Lenz have issued their own rebuttals, dealing with overseas travel, the purchase of custom-made suits in London, a proposed $300,000 retirement allowance for James and other issues questioned by Plecas.
In his follow-up report, Plecas goes through James and Lenz’s explanations for the questionable spending, referring to some of them as intentionally misleading. Plecas also refers to James driving a pickup carrying a desk and alcoholic beverages to the Penticton home of former speaker Bill Barisoff after Barisoff retired as an MLA in 2013.
Plecas questioned the $370 cheque from Barisoff labelled “wine purchase,” saying two trips delivered more than wine.
“Moreover, Mr. James has provided no reasonable explanation as to why it would have been appropriate for the most senior officer of the legislature to drive up to Penticton to sell wine and deliver a desk and chair to the former speaker, stay overnight at the Penticton Lakeside Inn, and drive back the next day, billing all of the expenses to the taxpayers along with his very high salary for two days of work,” Plecas wrote.
James and Lenz gave detailed responses to the MLA committee in early February, contradicting many of the assertions.
“The [Plecas] report goes out of its way to smear my character,” James wrote in his response. “It refers to historical and long-since resolved issues. It contains anonymous and unparticularized assertions. It contains opinions and innuendo which are neither accurate nor fair. It attributes statements to me which I never made, and conduct in which I never engaged.”