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B.C. legislature accountants' credibility questioned by Craig James' defence team

Ex-clerk Craig James is on trial for breach of trust and fraud
Former B.C. legislature clerk Craig James, being interviewed by CHEK News at the front door of his home. January 2019. (via CHEK News)

A handful of accountants at the B.C. legislature oversaw a controversial retirement benefit payment to then Clerk of the House Craig James in 2011, B.C. Supreme Court heard in testimony over the past week.

But while some of the accountants testified to how the payment — now subject to breach of trust and fraud allegations — was questionable, including how James may have been personally involved in it, his defence lawyers narrowed in on their credibility.

As each accountant took to the stand to explain how expenses were processed at the legislature, James’ lawyer Gavin Cameron painted a picture that the buck ultimately stops at accountants who should be duty-bound by their professional regulations to report suspicious activity. Ultimately, the $257,988 retirement benefit payment was processed seemingly with no substantial objection, the court heard.

James is accused of fraud and breach of trust for allegedly expensing personal travel items, using legislature property — such as a wood splitter and trailer, and improperly accepting the retirement benefit.

Cameron first established the accountability of accountants after former director of financial services Brian Urquhart took the stand Monday. Urquhart spoke of “incomplete” policy structures at the legislature. Cameron established how accountants are nevertheless obligated to rules of the Chartered Professional Accountants of B.C., the province’s self-regulatory body for professional accountants.

Former legislature audit committee member Arn van Iersel, a past Acting Auditor General of B.C., told court Tuesday how the legislature lacked separation of duties at senior levels to approve expenses and avoid conflicts of interest.

“What’s needed is a credible, competent accountant who is expected to raise concerns,” suggested Cameron.

On Friday, Cameron questioned the credibility of Daniel Arbic, the former legislature comptroller who was fired by James following a scathing Auditor General report in 2012.

Arbic, an accountant, signed off on James’ retirement benefit but not before he told the court he questioned it with House Speaker Bill Barisoff, who would have been senior to James who otherwise ran the Parliament Buildings as its de facto CEO.

Asked by Crown prosecutor Brock Martland who was in the driver’s seat to award the benefit, Arbic said it was James.

“I think the driver was Mr.James. The Speaker was basically agreeing to what James was putting before him,” said Arbic.

It could be contentious if James was entitled to said benefit, as it was supposed to be terminated in 1987; however, Barisoff and James claimed a new legal opinion in 2011 entitled certain legislature officers, such as James, to it retroactively.

But Cameron cut into Arbic’s credibility, noting he himself had improperly created secret vacation benefits to his staff as comptroller. Cameron accused Arbic of wanting to get back at James for his firing.

“You took a lot of pleasure in James’ termination,” Cameron said. “Let’s be clear; you harbour a lot of animosity to Mr. James and Mr. Barisoff because you lost your job.”

Arbic took exception but Cameron pressed on.

“Other than cutting a cheque, you know nothing of the retirement benefit, yes?” asked Cameron, to which Arbic replied, “Yes.”

Cameron reminded Arbic that as an accountant he had professional obligations to do the right thing.

Arbic described to prosecutors “nebulous rules” for members’ travel expenses and questionable expenses by clerks.

Mirroring him on Thursday was current manager of financial operations Nina Levi, also an accountant.

Levi told court James’ luggage expenses were questionable; they too were ultimately approved.

Levi told court how she was told by her executive financial officer Hilary Woodward that the luggage purchased overseas by James was in the clerk’s storage locker and despite her suspicions she never actually went to check before processing the payment in 2017.

Meanwhile, William James (Joe) Sass, a former accountant for the auditor general told court about “tense engagement” between senior legislature staff and his colleagues.

“It was pretty clear there was a political challenge,” said Sass.

“It was sometimes difficult to get information. … There was certainly pushback in providing things from time to time,” he explained to the court.

Sass told of how he observed unclear record-keeping at the legislature.

The trial continues Monday.

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