Bombshell spending allegations trigger calls for more transparency at B.C. legislature
The public wouldn’t have had to wait years to know about the allegedly audacious spending habits of two top legislature officials if the B.C. legislature was subject to the same transparency rules as most of the rest of government, advocates say.
The activities – and expenses – of the Craig James and Gary Lenz aren’t subject to Freedom of Information rules, which means they don’t have to regularly account to the public about the details of what they’re spending taxpayer money on.
“If there was an ability to do an FOI I’m sure this would have come out sooner,” said Sara Neurt, the executive director of the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association.
“FOI is like a public audit, where every citizen can participate. It’s one way to have confidence there’s transparency in government,” she said.
A freedom of information request is a written request for government records, which can include receipts for travel and expenses. Most members of the government and the bureaucracy must provide those records on request, with some exceptions.
Information requests have been the source of several high-profile expense scandals, such as the $16 orange juice that was expensed by former federal Conservative minster Bev Oda.
In the United Kingdom, a freedom of information request in 2008 eventually found astonishing expenses from members of that country’s parliament – leading to investigations and prosecutions.
In B.C. the legislature is overseen by a committee of MLAs. But the committee rarely meets and does not demand the same transparency.
It took an investigation by an independent Speaker to suspend James and Lenz, and then public pressure led to the reveal of their report by that committee.
Watchdog IntegrityBC’s Dermod Travis says extending the disclosure rules to the legislature would mean officials would watch what they spend.
“When you know your expenses could be posted online, by receipt, suddenly you’re going to be more prudent,” Travis said.