Wood splitter for 'earthquake preparedness'? Officials' responses to spending scandal
The senior B.C. government officials at the centre of an alleged spending scandal provided their defences for strange purchases like $13,000 in wood-splitting tools in responses obtained by CTV News.
The responses from Clerk of the Legislature Craig James and Sergeant-at-Arms Gary Lenz were leaked to CTV Friday afternoon, the day after their deadline to file submissions.
Both men insist there was no wrongdoing or misconduct, and said they hope for fair treatment from the Legislative Assembly Management Committee. Scroll down or click here for their responses to some of the more unusual allegations.
James wrote that he didn't learn of the allegations that triggered his suspension last fall until the end of January, when the B.C. Speaker released a report publicly outlining what he called "flagrant overspending."
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James said he feels the report is both inaccurate and illogical.
Lenz took the same stance, and added, "I wish to return to work. I want the truth to come out… and the public want the truth to come out."
He added that it was difficult for him to respond as it was hard to tell which allegations related to him, and which were exclusively related to James.
"My response reflects my best efforts, relying primarily on my memory, to answer the allegations against me," Lenz wrote.
"I can better substantiate my answers, if needed, once I am allowed access to the sources that can corroborate my statements."
Lenz said he has done everything in his ability to ensure the expectations of his duties are fulfilled.
"I have sworn to lay down my life for your protection when dire threats arise against you… I take my role as the Sergeant-at-Arms very seriously."
Wood splitter defence
Among the eyebrow-raising items outlined in the report by Darryl Plecas was $13,000 in wood-splitting tools and a trailer, which James wrote was purchased for "earthquake preparedness and disaster recovery."
"This may include moving emergency items, cutting beams to rescue injured people and cutting and splitting wood to supply heat and light if there is no power."
James says the report erroneously claims he'd bought the items for his and Lenz's personal use.
"This is not so."
He wrote that several people knew they'd been purchased and knew James was storing them while space at the legislature was under construction.
In his statement, Lenz wrote he'd never used or even seen the wood splitter or trailer, and that there was no basis for the allegation. He backed up James's claim that the items were part of emergency preparedness, and added other items including generators were also purchased.
In the days after the report was released, many questioned why anyone would need to cut firewood at the legislature.
To this, Lenz responded one of the lessons learned from experiences elsewhere is that "people will descend upon the legislative assembly" when a natural disaster strikes.
"Having the means to keep people warm until emergency services has facilities up and running was considered part of prudent emergency planning."
Lenz added the purchases were approved by an audit working group as part of the emergency preparedness plan, and that a form had been signed by members of the committee at the time.
$10K worth of liquor
Plecas has alleged that James took $10,000 worth of liquor to the previous Speaker in 2013, a claim James "categorically" denies.
"What I do remember is that, along with a desk and chair that had been presented to him, and other personal effects, I took some amount of alcohol to Mr. Barisoff's house," he wrote.
He said the amount was "certainly not" worth what was alleged, and that Speaker Bill Barisoff gave a cheque payable to the legislative assembly in exchange.
"It should be in the records, which are unavailable to me," he wrote.
"When I purchase alcohol myself, I pay for it - whether that is scotch at the Parliamentary Gift Shop, or wine from the mini-bar in my room."
Lenz does not appear to have been involved in this allegation, but he did say the boxes had been loaded into the clerk's truck openly in the middle of the day. He said he assumed at the time that it was unused and being returned, and had no reason to believe anything suspicious was going on.
$1K suit bought in U.K.
Regarding criticism of a $1,000 suit purchased in the U.K., James attached what he says is an email sent to him by Plecas, which states, "By this email I approve your expenses."
James says the email was sent following an in-depth review with the Speaker of his entire expense claim, during which Plecas voiced no concerns, he said.
He claims the Speaker told him the bill would not be reimbursed because "he was concerned about what the Liberals would say and how it might affect his potential recall."
"The suggestion in the Report that he played coy as he 'didn't want to alarm [me] is laughable," James wrote. He said he would have expected the Speaker to raise concerns at the time, but he never did.
And Lenz, too, was singled out for the purchase of a suit priced greater than $1,000.
"Mr. Lenz quipped to me that it was all 'part of the uniform,' which I suspected was an implication that they intended to expense all of the items," Plecas wrote in the report.
In response, Lenz wrote: "I did not purchase a suit or charge the Legislature for one. I purchased a new hat for my obligatory ceremonial uniform to replace the hat I had inherited from my predecessor, which was over 20 years old and falling apart."
He said he did buy the cufflinks mentioned in the Speaker's report, but that one set was for the deputy clerk's uniform.
Lenz added that his uniform comment was not a quip but was a statement of fact.
Travel expenses, gift shop purchases
Lenz also addressed allegations of improper spending while out of town.
"The trips I took were not boondoggles. They were for important business of the Legislative Assembly - part of an ongoing program to improve security and business continuity in the face of threats like the shootings at Parliament in Ottawa, the vehicular manslaughter outside the House of Commons in London, and natural disasters," he wrote.
He said any trips he took were consistent with ongoing programs, approved in advance, productive and resulted in measureable progress.
If his wife went with him, Lenz said, they paid all charges relating to her out of pocket.
Anything expensed from stores including gift shops, he said, was inexpensive and to be used for protocol visitors to the B.C. legislature or similar purposes.
"I made no purchases at the Scottish Parliament gift shop for personal use. I did look for a gift for my wife, but did not find anything," Lenz said.
Cycling magazine should not have been charged
James ceded that "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.
For example, he wrote, a bicycling magazine purchased for personal use should not have been lumped in with business-related subscriptions.
He said he will reimburse those expenses and be more careful in the future.
However, regarding a camera and computer products and services, he said those expenses were legitimately related to work.
Plecas has not provided a response to Lenz' and James's submissions, but said in an interview with CTV News Thursday that he believes MLAs not only contravened spending rules, but also broke the law.