Lavish expenses of B.C.'s legislative clerks costs big bucks
Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press
Published Tuesday, August 28, 2012 3:51PM PDT
Last Updated Wednesday, August 29, 2012 9:18AM PDT
VICTORIA -- It doesn't have that saucy allure of Real Housewives of Vancouver, but after Tuesday's revelations from British Columbia's legislature, Big Spending Clerks has the potential to become a new reality show.
Retirement contracts worth $500,000, taxpayer-funded trips to Africa -- spouses, too -- spa stays in Arizona -- British Columbia's clerks appear anything but mild mannered.
Long-time clerk of the B.C. legislature George MacMinn, who retired last year after 54 years on duty, and his replacement, Craig James, are under the political microscope for receiving gold-plated treatment from the pockets of provincial taxpayers.
MacMinn's $500,000, post-retirement consulting package prompted a political review and James's $43,000 in travel expenses while heading up ElectionsBC, the province's elections monitor, resulted in travel policy adjustments at the agency.
James vigorously defended himself Tuesday, saying his spouse came along because he got a deal that amounted to a free ticket for her and that a conference he was attending happened to be going on at a spa.
The members of the much-maligned all-party political committee that oversees the financial operations of the B.C. legislature took aim at MacMinn's two-year retirement contract during and after Tuesday's first-ever public meeting.
"It strikes me that a $250,000 a year contribution to a clerk consultant is unnecessary," said Opposition New Democrat committee member John Horgan.
"When people retire they get a gold watch and they move away. They don't get a two-year contract."
Horgan said he was concerned the job description details of MacMinn's two-year consulting contract are not known. He wondered if the contract could also cover other expenses, including "club fees."
The committee, which includes three Liberals, Speaker of the Legislature Bill Barisoff, and two New Democrats, agreed to examine MacMinn's contract.
James told the committee MacMinn's contract was legally binding over the two years and if it was challenged, could "end up costing the legislative assembly a whole lot more."
James, who replaced MacMinn last year, told the committee he's committed to full financial and political accountability under his watch.
Earlier this summer, Auditor General John Doyle delivered a scathing report on the management of the legislature, revealing a mess in the legislature's books that made it impossible to conclude if money was being spent or misspent.
Doyle's report found that MLA credit card bills are being paid without receipts and the legislative assembly hasn't produced financial statements despite a 2007 recommendation from the previous auditor general.
James said his office has made great strides towards cleaning up the books and he intends on making the legislature a "shining model of accountability."
"I will not have my name attached to a bad audit," he told the committee.
But minutes after the committee's historic first public meeting adjourned, a B.C.-based political watchdog group, IntegrityBC, released documents obtained under a freedom of information request, detailing James's travel expenses while he was the acting chief of Elections BC, the province's electoral monitor.
"British Columbians paid thousands of dollars for the former head of Elections BC to take his wife on a business trip to Africa and for him to later stay at an exclusive private club in Washington, D.C. and an Arizona resort," said an IntegrityBC statement.
IntegrityBC said James's $43,295 bill for travel expenses between Aug. 25 and Dec. 12, 2010. Elections BC confirmed there are new travel rules that bar officials from travelling in business class.
IntegrityBC said James travelled to Nairobi, Kenya, with his wife, to attend a Commonwealth Parliamentary conference and also stayed at exclusive resorts in Washington, DC and Phoenix, Arizona.
James confirmed the travel costs but denied they were lavish or exclusive.
He said he often saves money because political and financial organizations cover some of his costs. James said IntegrityBC never called him to get his side of the story.
"It's not factual and it's a disappointing feature of somebody who would call themselves IntegrityBC," said James.
He confirmed spending $14,523 for two business class seats to attend the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Conference in Nairobi, Kenya with his wife.
James said the flight was a deal under a group rate obtained through a travel agent that ended up costing less than a single fare on Air Canada.
ElectionsBC travel entitlements at that time permitted the splitting of airfare costs up to and including business class fares with another person. The entitlements have since been dropped.
James said his $399-per-night stay, plus taxes, at the Arizona Biltmore Resort and Spa in Phoenix coincided with a conference at the facility.
MacMinn declined to comment.