Taxpayers paid for even more lavish foreign trips: Speaker

A $40,000, five-day trip to England and $10,000-plus trip to Sri Lanka are among the lavish items the public bankrolled, Speak Darryl Plecas claims in his newest report into the legislature spending scandal.

Gary Lenz (left) and Craig James. Arlen Redekop / PNG

A five-day, nearly $40,000 trip to England in 2011 for B.C.’s three highest-ranking legislature officials is one of several questionable travel expenses detailed in the newest report by Speaker Darryl Plecas into the recent spending scandal.

“The trips of Mr. Lenz and Mr. James have the appearance of loosely justifiable travel on the public purse rather than necessary expenses,” Plecas writes about Clerk Craig James and Sergeant-at-Arms Gary Lenz, who were both suspended in November in the midst of an investigation into spending at the legislature.

Plecas, in a new 32-page report released Thursday, mentions in a footnote that a Dec. 4 to 9, 2011 trip to London, England that James and Lenz took with then-speaker Bill Barisoff cost taxpayers $37,180.84. He alleges little work was done on many trips taken by James and Lenz, and that the men had expensive tastes.

Plecas wrote that he has only seen detailed receipts for their travel in 2017 and 2018, and hinted more damning allegations could emerge in future audits because “in each of 2014 and 2016, Mr. James claimed approximately $70,000 for travel and Mr. Lenz $30,000.”

In legal responses released Thursday, James and Lenz continue to strenuously deny any wrongdoing, complain of unfair treatment due to the Speaker’s “highly prejudicial” reports, and insist they should get their jobs back.

“The concerns raised by the Speaker do not justify Mr. James’ removal,” writes lawyer Mark Andrews. “There is no reason why the RCMP investigation (and any other investigation deemed appropriate) cannot be completed with him back in his position.”

After investigating both men for almost a year, Plecas released a bombshell report in January into alleged misspending by both men. James and Lenz issued detailed denials on Feb. 8, and Plecas chips away at those explanations in his new report released Thursday.

MLAs from all parties also agreed Thursday to find a retired judge to investigate Plecas’ findings, which will be in addition to a workplace review and a forensic audit by the B.C. auditor-general. A separate police investigation is being overseen by two special prosecutors.

The $37,000 trip to England in 2011 came just months after James became clerk. Lenz sent a briefing note to James three weeks before the trip, asking permission for the two of them and Barisoff to “unveil the Black Rod of British Columbia to honour Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012 … to meet with representatives from the House of Lords, so that they can present us with an engraved ring that will be incorporated into the Black Rod.”

He estimates in the memo that the trip will cost approximately $10,000.

Receipts attached to Plecas’ report illustrate how the men spent $37,000 in just five days:

• Lenz, for example, flew first-class to Heathrow, which cost more than $11,000 when all the fees were added in. Other expenses included a hotel that cost $486.32 per night and $1,084.01 in “corporate gifts” from the House of Lords, including a Christmas pudding, spirit decanter, cufflinks, towel, guidebook, umbrella, playing cards, mint tins, dictionaries, and computer mouse mats.

• Barisoff also expensed close to $11,000 for the cost of his flights, and other items including a $9 laundry/valet bill from the Park Plaza Westminster Bridge hotel in London. This appears to have prompted an employee with the legislative comptroller’s office to note in an email that laundry fees are not usually covered until someone is away for more than seven days.

• James hosted a “protocol lunch” that cost $197.13.

Plecas’ new report also took aim at another trip, this one to Sri Lanka and Hong Kong in September 2012, taken by James, Barisoff and Barisoff’s wife. The Barisoffs expensed $13,334 for their business-class tickets, and a total of nearly $17,000 for their portion of the trip.

James’ wife was initially booked to attend as well, but when she decided not to go, James reimbursed the legislature the cost of her flight but not the $1,054 change fee. Other expenses by James included a two-night stay at a Westin Hotel in Guangzhou for $2,870.

Little was accomplished on the trip, Plecas claims, and some of the itinerary was planned after the flights were booked. “It is difficult to resist the inference that this was an example of Mr. James picking the place to travel to first, and endeavouring to justify it after by attempting to arrange some meetings and events that could be said to be ‘work related,’” Plecas wrote.

When a retired judge is hired, that person will investigate the findings in Plecas’ reports.

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Twitter: @loriculbert

Speaker’s office seeks fast review of legislature officials’ actions

VICTORIA — The retired jurist tasked with reviewing whether clerk Craig James and sergeant-at-arms Gary Lenz have engaged in misconduct should report back within weeks, not months, so that MLAs can decide whether the two senior legislative officers should continue to be paid while on suspension, the Speaker’s chief of staff said Friday.

”It’s not another investigation, we don’t want to this go on for another few months before we have a next step,” Alan Mullen told reporters on Friday.

On Thursday, the all-party committee that oversees the legislature’s finances announced that a retired judge would be appointed to conduct an independent review into whether the alleged overspending by James and Lenz amounts to misconduct.

The jurist, who has not yet been selected, will not conduct a whole new investigation, but will review Speaker Darryl Plecas’s two reports, which accuse James and Lenz of taking lavish trips overseas and spending taxpayers’ money on gifts, luxury items and a $13,000 wood splitter and work trailer. The review will also look at the men’s responses to those allegations.

The review, which is separate from an RCMP investigation, could help MLAs decide whether the pair should remain suspended with pay. James was paid a salary of $347,090 in 2018 and Lenz was paid $218,167.

Mullen initially said the jurist would complete his review within 10 days, but that time frame was not in Thursday’s motion from the legislative assembly management committee. Mullen later said he misspoke and a 10-day time frame was not discussed.

The motion said the house leaders would draft the terms of reference for the retired jurist, a process from which Plecas has recused himself.

Mullen said the Speaker is recusing himself from the review because Plecas has already provided detailed information. Mullen indicated that Plecas will continue to conduct a separate workplace review focused on human resources.

“He is still the Speaker. He is still in charge of this legislature. We recognize that OK, there’s things need fixing and we’re going to keep on doing that,” said Mullen.

The focus of the workplace review will be on those who currently work in the legislature and those who worked there in the past, but would not include those who work directly for the individual political parties.

Mullen vowed that Plecas will continue to raise issues that may come up.

“British Columbians are screaming loud and clear, ‘Please don’t stop, please keep going,’” said Mullen. “And oh my goodness are we going to keep going? Well that’s a big yes.”

Katie DeRosa with files from Postmedia News




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