Taxpayer-funded trips were 'de facto holidays,' new Plecas report says
Published Thursday, February 21, 2019 5:00PM PST Last Updated Thursday, February 21, 2019 6:51PM PST
A tour the suspended B.C. legislature clerk organized to learn about “earthquake preparedness” was actually a whale watching trip, and a seminar about emergency evacuations was actually a Seattle Mariners baseball game, according to a scathing new report by Speaker Darryl Plecas.
- Scroll down or click here to read the Speaker's full report
Taxpayers paid thousands for “official-sounding” meetings around the world that were actually opportunities for Craig James, suspended sergeant-at-arms Gary Lenz, their wives and friends to gather with flimsy explanations for why public money should pay for it, according to a report presented to a Legislature committee Thursday afternoon by Plecas.
“The trips of Mr. Lenz and Mr. James have the appearance of loosely justifiable travel on the public purse rather than necessary expenses. Moreover, I suspect that if one looks into the people they are meeting with, the same names will figure year over year,” Plecas writes.
The whale-watching trip cost $1,024. Thirteen tickets to the baseball game cost $1,073.32. And three “working dinners” on a trip to Washington state cost $3,601.01, the report says, in the second round of stunning revelations about the alleged behaviour of the suspended top legislature officials.
James wasn’t even invited to Washington state for a conference of the “Legislative Assemblies Business Continuity Network” in July and August 2017 – he just invited himself, Plecas says, and followed up with a trip to Scotland to see many of the same people just four months later.
“The standard we expect of senior executives can’t be that their actions be ‘plausibly defensible or ‘…but someone else okayed it.’ It has to be that they do what’s right,” Plecas writes.
Both Lenz and James have strongly denied any wrongdoing and they are not charged with any crime. Plecas’s ongoing investigation is operating in parallel with an RCMP investigation that is guided by two special prosecutors.
In a report to a legislature committee James described the “Legislative Assembly Business Continuity Network” as “an organization comprised of legislatures in various areas around the world which collaborate and share best practices in relation to business continuity and disaster preparedness.”
He describes the trips as “valuable fact finding and collaborative visits to New Zealand and legislatures on the western coast of the United States” and says purchasing a $13,000 wood splitter and trailer is important “to supply heat and light if there is no power.”
James says a meeting in Safeco Field was to meet with the head of security “where the topics of mass evacuations and protecting large scale public venues from attacks were discussed in detail. This had applicability to all of our legislatures. We were offered tickets to a baseball game, which many in the group had never seen. As host, my office paid for the tickets. Taking delegates to sporting or cultural events is standard practice for most if not all parliamentary jurisdictions.”
The Plecas report describes several other meetings among the “Legislative Assemblies Business Continuity Network,” whose website simply says “Coming soon!”:
- The Scottish officials at the Washington trip also hosted James, Lenz, and others in December 2017 in a new trip;
- In August 2018, the officials visited Windsor, had dinner at the Royal Air Force Club, visited a “Soho Farmhouse” and had a “cultural day” in London;
- In September 2018, those same officials were hosted for five nights at the Hotel Grand Pacific in Victoria for $4,059.64, even though the seminar they were giving was only three days long.
“Mr. James’s and Mr. Lenz’s description of them using various titles and descriptions, without naming them, obscures the fact that in a span of 13 months, Mr. James and Mr. Lenz hosted these individuals in Victoria twice, and used meetings with them as part of the justification for two trips to the U.K.,” Plecas writes.
The lavish trips might be better counted as vacation, which the clerk and sergeant-at-arms said they did not take and billed taxpayers for their vacation days, he said.
“What in fact appears to be the case is that their extensive “work” travels served as their de facto holidays.” Plecas wrote.
“If this weren’t so serious, it would be the stuff of comedy."
The first report released by Plecas described only expenses in the past 18 months. But it’s clear that his investigation, carried out with chief of staff Alan Mullen, is ongoing and looking farther back in time.
“I suspect further revelations about their travel expenses are going to be very embarrassing for the Legislature,” Plecas wrote.
In another case, former Speaker Bill Barisoff and his wife travelled to Sri Lanka in September 2012 for a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference, expensing business class flights to and from Vancouver for $13,334.34
James booked a trip for himself and his wife at a cost of $13,404.34. When his wife decided not to come, James reimbursed the legislature the cost of the flights, but not the $1054.50 cancellation fee.
On the way back, the party had a private tour of Kowloon before travelling to Guangzhou for a breakfast meeting – but that meeting was only booked after the flights were arranged.
“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.
Plecas said the most charitable explanation for all of this is that the pair believed these were necessary business activities.
“I disagree, and I expect the vast majority of ordinary British Columbians do too. On the other hand, if Mr. James and Mr. Lenz knew their activities had no genuine business purpose…then that is much more problematic,” Plecas wrote.
Speaker Darryl Plecas's full report follows. Viewing this on our mobile beta site? Tap here to see a compatible version.