The B.C. legislature’s former senior payroll officer described in court Wednesday a period of questionable expenses during her tenure, including how elected MLAs didn’t like to be questioned on travel claims.
Maureen Olson was called by special Crown prosecutors to testify in B.C. Supreme Court at the Craig James trial about her time as senior manager of financial services up until her termination in 2014.
There, Olson described “challenging” times when presented with expenses she thought were questionable, including a retroactive retirement benefit James was handed when he became Clerk of the House in 2011 via a controversial partisan appointment by the BC Liberal government.
“Anytime we tried to question payments and stuff, things that went through our office, it was challenging,” said Olson about MLAs.
She said travel was a key concern.
“Some of the travel sometimes. The appropriateness of who went on what trips, it was pretty generous,” said Olson.
Olson described her 29-year career at the legislature and said around 2006 it became “challenging to question anything.”
Olson’s testimony aligns with the high-profile instance of former Speaker of the House Linda Reid, who billed the public $5,500 so her husband could travel with her to Africa on a junket.
Much of Olson’s testimony to Crown prosecutor Brock Martland then turned to James’ $257,988 retirement benefit paid in January 2012.
James is accused of three counts of breach of trust and two counts of fraud for allegedly expensing personal items while travelling on legislature business, personally using government property, such as a wood splitter and trailer and not being compliant with policies in order to obtain the retirement benefit.
Olson is the person who processed James’ retirement benefit, which was granted when senior leaders at the legislature, including James and House Speaker Bill Barisoff, are said to have interpreted James to be eligible for it.
But Olson said she understood James to be entitled to a normal retirement allowance, as he was not a so-called “table officer” prior to 1987, when the benefit ended. She explained only four table officers (described as a contracted employee with no official benefits) at that time were eligible for such a payment retroactively, as noted in a memo at the time. (The benefit was a payout of 13 days worth of salary each year to a maximum of 20 years.)
One of those persons was George McMinn, the outgoing clerk in 2011.
Olson said she questioned the benefit payment to James with the director of human resources but no one else higher up, including James. She noted since 1987 James had always received the usual benefits of an employee.
Olson said she heard of a legal opinion obtained by Barisoff in 2011 on James’ eligibility but never actually saw it. Thereafter Barisoff deemed the retirement benefit program ended, which is a contentious matter as others, such as Olson, perceive the program to have already been terminated in 1987.
Eventually, Olson said she took her concerns to the Auditor General, who, by 2013, produced a critical report on the benefit payments and lack of disclosure of them.
Another recipient of the benefit was former clerk assistant and law clerk Ian Izard, who testified Tuesday.
Izard worked at the legislature from 1977 to 2011 and was paid $80,224 for his retirement benefit (much less than James as he had already been paid half of his entitlement by 1987).
“Was James in control of who would be paid the benefit?” asked Martland.
“I think he would have been,” replied Izard.
Court also heard this week from Arn van Iersel, a past acting auditor general (2006) who worked for the legislature’s audit committee during the relevant period of the retirement benefit payments.
Iersel described how the legislature was limited in its ability to separate duties to prevent conflicts of interests, which was especially problematic as policies appeared vague on expenses.
Defense attorney Gavin Cameron suggested certified accountants, such as Iersel or former director of financial services Brian Urquhart, are bound by their professional oaths to raise concerns in the public interest. Cameron alluded to the fact no concerns were raised by senior officials about the retirement benefit payment to James (as well as deputy clerk Kate Ryan-Lloyd).
The trial is expected to continue past the Family Day holiday on Feb. 21.