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    At the legislative trough


    Russ Francis

    Baseball games, $258,000 “retirement” allowances for the unretired, and truckloads of alcohol: How did it come to this?

     

    Earlier this year, we learned that highly paid officers of the legislature have been picking taxpayers’ pockets over the years to the tune of millions of dollars. At least, that’s the claim made by Speaker Darryl Plecas in his January 21 report focusing on unusual activities by Legislature Clerk Craig James and Sergeant at Arms Gary Lenz.

    On November 20, 2018, before details of the alleged shenanigans were made public, Lenz and James were suspended with pay and banned from the legislative precinct. One need have no fear about the pair’s immediate financial situation. James takes home $347,000—approximately $1,400 per day, while Lenz scrapes by on $218,000, or a trifling $850 per day. (Figures are from the 2017-18 fiscal year.) But these impressive salaries—both of which exceed the $205,000 paid to the BC premier—may be just the start of their emoluments.

     

    1028767660_BCParliamentBuildingsatdusk.jpg.a71d1fbcb5e33db3df2a13319c526ffd.jpg

    BC Parliament Buildings at dusk

     

    In his report, Plecas alleged flagrant overspending on luxurious overseas trips, tens of thousands of dollars in personal purchases charged to taxpayers, using work time to make trips for other than legitimate work purposes, as well as thousands of dollars in alcohol and equipment that may have been misappropriated from the BC Legislative Assembly. On top of this, Plecas alleged that steps had been taken to conceal the inappropriate spending. Plecas turned over his findings to the RCMP, which is investigating. Two special prosecutors are on the case, along with the BC auditor general, and in late February an internal inquiry was due to begin.

    James and Lenz have denied any wrongdoing. Neither have been charged with any crime.

     

    HOW COULD ALL THIS HAPPEN, in an era of purportedly enhanced public transparency? Why did the press gallery—to which I belonged for 12 years—not pick up on this funny business sooner?

    MLAs’ own spending, and that of their employees, which include the officers of the legislature such as the clerk and the sergeant at arms, is supposedly governed by the Legislative Assembly Management Committee (LAMC), made up of—you guessed it—MLAs. My experiences attending the committee’s meetings as a journalist during the 1990s soon became highly predictable. After a few formalities, the committee would go in camera, forcing me to leave. No Hansard, and no real minutes: only those select MLAs and attending officers of the legislature had any idea what happened behind those closed doors. The committee has an infamous history of secrecy, even though it oversees annual public spending that has now grown to more than $83 million in 2019-20. Following a scathing report by then-Auditor General John Doyle in July 2012, Hansard now produces transcripts of the public portion of the LAMC meetings, and MLAs are required to file quarterly reports of their expenses, including even photocopies of their ferry tickets.

    In keeping with this historic secrecy, the Old Guard among the officers of the legislature were perhaps the most paranoid group of overpaid one-percenters I have met, and through “Vote 1”—the legislature’s own budget—they exert overwhelming control over not just the legislature, but over the press gallery, which numbers about 30 members. In exchange, press gallery members received more than a few perks. During my time in the gallery, we got free 24-hour parking directly behind the legislature, year-round use of the invaluable legislative library, free office space, free long distance calls, and most important of all, virtually unfettered access to the legislature building.

    Stepping into some of the legislative officers’ dens was like being transported into the Dark Ages. One day, as I was entering the building via the back steps next to the library, one of the officers leaned out of an open window above, and beckoned to me. We sat down in his plush office, and he rang a little bell to summon a female assistant. Coffee please, he said, and she dutifully complied, closing the door as she left. The officer told me he’d heard I’d been asking about an aspect of Vote 1 spending, and was clearly unhappy about it. “There’s no need to do this story,” he said, in a firm, condescending tone. Thanks to the secrecy of the legislature’s finances, I could not have published the story anyway without the co-operation of his gagged staff, so it died.

    Another time, a legislature staffer invited me into his office, and closed the door. He didn’t waste time on the niceties. “YOU WRITE ONE FUCKING WORD ABOUT THIS AND YOU’LL NEVER SET FOOT IN MY OFFICE AGAIN!” he yelled. It took a few seconds for me to even cotton on to which story he had in mind—and it was one which, until his outburst, I had not connected with any missteps by the officers. Now I knew there was a connection. The story ran in Monday Magazine. On one occasion, another Monday story apparently annoyed the clerks. Wrongly thinking I had gained information for the story by rifling through the garbage cans placed along the Speaker’s Corridor, within hours of the story appearing, somebody ordered all of the cans removed.

    After 12 years in the press gallery, I stopped working as a reporter and, in 2007, entered UVic’s public administration program, beginning work as a BC government analyst the following year. In all, I worked for more than a decade in a number of positions in various ministries. Among the dozens of courses provided free to public servants are those in ethics and financial management.

    If James and Lenz ever attended such courses, it seems to me that they could have done with a refresher.

     

    ON FEBRUARY 7, JAMES AND LENZ provided what they said was a rebuttal of many of the Plecas claims. At the heart of some of those rebuttals were statements to the effect that Plecas either signed off on the questionable purchases, or condoned them at the time. For instance, Plecas said that in March or April, 2018, James came into his office asking the speaker to sign off on a $300,000-plus “retirement allowance,” to be paid to James upon his retirement. As Plecas wrote, there was no apparent justification for the allowance. After all, James already had what Plecas called a sizable pension. Nor had the payment been approved, or even discussed, by LAMC, nor by the finance and audit committee. Not only that, but in 2012, James had already received a $258,000 benefit that was also classed as a “retirement benefit”—even though James did not retire. Despite serious concerns, Plecas signed the document approving the additional $300,000. Plecas stated, “In the moment, I thought that if I declined the request, Mr James would leave with the piece of paper and I would lose any evidence that this inappropriate request had been made. As a result, I decided to sign it so that Mr James would not dispose of the draft, and I resolved to later rescind the benefit, which is what I did….”

    In his February reply to the charges, James said that the “retirement benefit” was Plecas’ idea. “If the Speaker had concerns regarding benefits payable to executive employees…he could and should have asked a question. If he wanted to keep the piece of paper as ‘evidence,’ all he had to do was ask me to leave it on his desk so he could think about it,” wrote James.

    The issue has turned into a war of words. In his February 21 statement, Plecas said that James’ claim that the idea for retirement benefits came from him was “simply a lie. If I had proposed it, why would I have called [then deputy clerk] Ms Ryan-Lloyd immediately afterward in disbelief about the request? It was she who informed me about the earlier payout that Mr James had taken of $257,000, and that caused me to inquire into that issue further and learn a great deal more about it.”

    Having once worked undercover for a US non-profit organization, I fully concur with Plecas’ decision to withhold objections at the time. For me, the undercover role was justified for results unobtainable in any other way. In my view, Plecas’ acting as a quasi-undercover agent was entirely appropriate. If he had instead done what Liberal House Leader Mary Polak and James suggested, you can be sure that documents could have been shredded, emails deleted, and tracks covered as fast as you can say, “What expenses?”

    Purchases by Lenz and James are detailed in Plecas’ January 21 report, and enhanced in a second report released February 21. Over the years, I had dozens of conversations with James in his former position as clerk of committees, as well as in his role as editorial board member of the Canadian Parliamentary Review, while I was writing an article for the periodical. I struggle to understand how James, a friendly, quiet-spoken man, could possibly think it acceptable to hit up taxpayers for subscriptions to Arizona Highways, Sunset, Wired, Flightradar24, Palm Springs Life, Bicycling, India Today, Popular Mechanics, and a host of other publications (or find time during off-hours to read them all). Many of the subscriptions were digital, and were set up to renew automatically each month. Plecas reports that James filed claims for digital subscriptions totalling more than $5,000 for the period from April 2017 to December 2018.

    In his response to the Plecas claims about subscriptions, James said: “I accept that I did not take the care I should have in reviewing these invoices before they were processed for reimbursement to segregate out personal subscriptions (i.e., a Bicycling magazine) from subscriptions that were for business use.”

    This is utterly unconvincing. I do not understand how even the busiest of well-paid officials could be so sloppy in submitting reimbursement claims, which any school kid would know to be little short of attempted theft.

    And $500 for a pair of Bose noise-cancelling headphones in 2017—on top of the ones expensed in 2011 for $447? James explains them this way: “I suffer from a condition which causes ear problems when flying, arising from a combination of sound and cabin pressure. The noise-cancelling headphones were purchased to alleviate that condition.”

    What a crock. Noise-cancelling headphones do not form an hermetic seal around the ears: they have no effect at all on cabin pressure. Moreover, good quality noise-cancelling headphones can be had for a lot less. On February 11, a pair of Sony noise-cancelling headphones was listed at Best Buy for $59.99.

    The list of questionable financial misdeeds keeps growing. Besides the first-round of allegations involving woodsplitters, travel, pricey suitcases, alcohol and more, in his follow-up report released February 21, Plecas said that in August 2017, British Columbians coughed up more than $1,000 for eight people to take a whale-watching trip—billed as “Tsunami Watch.” Three days later, ever-generous BC taxpayers kindly donated more than US$1,000 for 13 tickets to a Seattle Mariners baseball game—billed as “Safe passages: Large-Scale Evacuations.” Evacuations from where? Why, Safeco Field, Seattle, of course, where the Mariners just happened to be playing at the time. Among the 12 people taking part in the trip were James, Lenz and their spouses.

    During my ten years in public service, neither I nor my colleagues ever dreamed of asking taxpayers to cough up for such absurdities, no matter how much our ears rang from flying on government business nor how desperate we were to watch overpaid, expectorating men chuck balls around. And none of us pulled in anything close to the $347,000 that James collects annually—not counting the $51,000 he stuck taxpayers with for travel in 2017-18.

    Again, neither James nor Lenz have been charged with a crime, and both deny they have done anything wrong.

     

    IN READING THROUGH THE ALLEGATIONS of over-the-top expensing, one overriding impression is that James and Lenz were thinking: We’re entitled. In an email to Focus, prominent UVic political scientist Michael Prince summed up the issue neatly: “The pressing need is to instill a culture and practice that this is the people’s house—not some private club.”

    Darrell Evans has been involved with information access for more than 25 years. Now president of the Vancouver-based Canadian Institute for Information and Privacy Studies, Evans is familiar with the genesis and evolution of cultures of entitlement. “It starts with some little thing,” Evans said in an interview. “Then it gets looser and looser.” When financial details of an organization like the legislature remain secret, members of the club can be tempted to test the limits of what they can get away with, he said.

    Starting in the early 1990s, Evans was among the first to call for the legislature’s administrative functions to be covered by the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIPPA). “Whenever there’s power without transparency, it’s human nature to empire-build and get what you can,” Evans added. “The legislature is the last bastion of imperial privilege.”

    On February 5, BC Information and Privacy Commissioner Michael McEvoy, Ombuds-person Jay Chalke, and Merit Commissioner Fiona Spencer called for the administrative functions and operations of the legislature to be subject to FOIPPA. As McEvoy told Focus: “It’s fair to say that when public bodies know their actions will be fully transparent, people tend to act accordingly.”

    Attorney General and NDP House Leader Mike Farnworth said the government intends to implement the recommendations.

    Will the proposal from McEvoy et al work to turn around the culture that seems to have led to an abuse of power by officers of the legislature?

    Sara Neuert, executive director of the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, thinks more is needed. “I don’t think it will solve the problems,” she said in an interview. “The act is old enough that we need to discuss what is working and what is not working. They need to quit tinkering with it.” Neuert noted that this is hardly the first time anybody has proposed bringing the legislature under FOIPPA. “How many commissioners have we heard say the same thing?”

    Among the other changes that Neuert would like to see are requirements that public servants have an enforceable “duty to document.” Though public servants are currently supposed to create a digital record of any substantial policy-related phone conversations and instant messages, it is rarely done. Neuert joins others in calling for penalties for violating the rule.

    Is there anything else which might help open up the secretive club that is LAMC?

    New Democrat Tom Perry, who was minister of advanced education, training and technology during the 1990s, is also a physician. “Whenever there are entitlements, most people will push them to the limits,” he said. “But wealthier people tend to feel more entitled than poorer people who can’t afford to be fired.”

    His medical background hints at an intriguing suggestion that might finally bring the legislature’s drunken sailors under control: appoint lay people to LAMC, who would be untainted by any possibility of conflict. Their role would be solely to ensure that the public’s interests are protected.

    Could that work? To judge from another regulatory body, yes. The Board of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of British Columbia oversees the protection and safety of patients, ensuring that physicians meet expected standards of practice and conduct—something that some officers of the legislature and MLAs appear to have violated. The college’s board consists of ten peer-elected members and six members of the public, appointed by the health ministry.

    Did all of the legislative officers drink the Kool Aid, somehow becoming bereft of moral scruples? Fortunately, no. There is at least one standout among them, according to the January 21 Plecas report. Kate Ryan-Lloyd, who at the time was deputy clerk and clerk of committees, initially accepted a “retirement allowance” similar to that paid to James, but later returned it because, suggested Plecas, she did not believe it to be a legitimate benefit. Not an easy thing to do in a highly controlling environment when other officers, all very much her senior, willingly accepted it.

    By actually adhering to some basic moral principles, Ryan-Lloyd has done BC taxpayers past, present, and future a sterling service. At the time of Focus’ deadline, Ryan-Lloyd was the acting clerk; maybe she should be made permanent clerk of the legislature.

    While a member of the BC press gallery from 1995 to 2007, Russ Francis campaigned extensively in Monday Magazine and other news media outlets against the secrecy surrounding the administrative functions of the Legislative Assembly.

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