Legislature high jinks

Why bring an empty suitcase back purchased 10,287 km away?

There’s a bit of a Swiss cheese – full of holes – feel to some of the defences put forward by clerk Craig James and sergeant-at-arms Gary Lenz to Speaker Darryl Plecas’s report that “accused the two of ‘flagrant overspending’ including inappropriate expenses, lavish foreign trips, and questionable retirement and pay benefits.”

The reasoning underlying some of their expenses may not be as helpful to them as they might hope. Call it the plausibility factor.

James said he was merely storing that now infamous wood splitter “at his home until a storage area could be built at the legislature,” but added it was inconvenient because he lived “in a strata and not a rural property.”

However, as Postmedia reported, “B.C. Assessment records show he does, indeed, live in a strata, but in a 3,600-sq.-ft., single-family home on a 10,000-sq.-ft. lot in Victoria.”

Lenz’s take on that splitter? “My recollection is that the wood splitter was for the purpose of providing firewood for heat and light in the event of a disaster…One of the lessons that we learned from experiences in other parts of the world (such as Christchurch, New Zealand) is that the expectation is that many people will descend upon the legislative assembly in the event of a disaster.”

Lenz, James and Josie Schofield, a senior researcher at the legislature, visited Christchurch in April 2013. The wood splitter was purchased on October 27, 2017, four and a half years later. So much for “prudent emergency planning.”

James conceded that some of his “digital subscriptions should not have been charged to the legislature, and said he did not take the care he should have in reviewing the receipts.”

Here’s how James described his bulletproof financial system – as it applies to travel expenses – last November: “When we return from our business trips, I hand my expense claims to my assistant who goes through them and if there are any concerns, she raises them.

“I sign the document then it goes off to the executive financial officer who then casts her expert eye over the claim. From there it goes to the director of financial services who again casts his expert eye over the expenses. And then from there I think there’s one or two others in financial services that will review everything…”

Justifying his purchase of a suitcase at Hong Kong’s airport, James replied that he bought it in response to requests by MLAs – who earn in excess of $105,000 per year – that “a pool of luggage be available at the legislature for official travel.”

Why not buy it in Victoria, where one of the nearest luggage stores to the legislature is only 800 metres away, instead of bringing an empty suitcase back purchased 10,287 km away?

Then there’s the booze.

The Plecas report says former Speaker Bill Barisoff “may have received as much as $10,000 in alcohol taken from storage in the legislature following a social gathering.”

James claimed that “Mr. Barisoff provided a cheque for the alcohol, payable to the Legislative Assembly.”

In January, Barisoff emphatically denied that he received any large shipment of booze from legislature staff. “I never received $10,000 worth of alcohol at my house at any given time,” he told the Kelowna Daily News.

Perhaps the quibble is over the $10,000 assigned value, perhaps it’s over the true recipient, but when did the legislature get into the business of re-selling booze in the first place, something that is not permitted under B.C.’s special events licenses?

James claimed in his response that he met with Vancouver lawyers John Hunter, Q.C. and Geoff Plant, Q.C. “in relation to legal matters involving the Legislative Assembly…I believed it was cheaper to have me travel to meet with counsel rather than to have a lawyer charge for his time travelling to Victoria.”

As Bob Mackin reported, Hunter – who was appointed to the B.C. Court of Appeal on April 12, 2017 – denies meeting James on two of the four days in question.

Both Lenz and James genuinely believe they have done nothing wrong and, like Senator Mike Duffy, they may be right.

Having an absurdly generous travel and expense policy may be criminal in the metaphorical sense, but it’s not in the criminal code.

Dermod Travis is the executive director of IntegrityBC. www.integritybc.ca

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