Legislature's poor oversight exposed

Beverley McLachlin outlined the elaborate flow chart that supposedly illustrates how accountability and responsibility are handled at the B.C. legislature.

Then the former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada made the key observation that explains the groundwork for the spending scandal that engulfed ex-legislature clerk Craig James: "I have learned that, in reality, this structure was not always respected."

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She picked up on a subtle flaw in the legal design of the elaborate hierarchy: it looks good only on paper.

The "permanent officers" of the legislature, such as the clerk and sergeant-at-arms Gary Lenz, whom she cleared of all allegations, had little accountability. Lines were blurred and it "created a space where self-interested opportunism could trump the interests of the legislative assembly."

The lack of organizational clarity made for cracks, through which all the power flowed to James.

McLachlin itemized in detail how he misused it. Some of the instances are small change in the multimillion-dollar enterprise that is the legislature. But they add up to a dismaying picture of a sense of entitlement in an individual whose wide-ranging authority became entrenched.

Her dissection of some of his unconvincing explanations is just as dismaying.

He bought a thousand-dollar suit in London and a $600 shirt and accessories, then charged them to taxpayers as "uniform" costs. Then he told McLachlin it was OK because he was revamping the uniform. She didn't buy it. She found they were bought for his personal use and charging the legislature for them constituted misconduct.

He bought $2,136 worth of luggage on jaunts to London and Hong Kong and said he was setting up a "luggage bank" for MLAs.

To sum up the tone of McLachlin's conclusion: give me a break.

She found he never told MLAs about their luggage bank. None of them ever used it. It was only offered as a reason after he was questioned about the expense by an uncomfortable financial officer. And the luggage wound up at his home.

She went through all the charges levelled by Speaker Darryl Plecas in his January report, dismissing some and upholding others. It's when she got to the more expensive claims that the gravity of the case sinks in.

She said James pursued two separate and overlapping claims for life insurance and death benefits. There was no evidence he wanted a policy covering all staff - the efforts were just for himself and were outside of established policy.

Misconduct, said the retired justice.

A long, complicated wrangle over a $258,000 benefit he obtained for himself based on a legislature policy from years earlier ended with a similar verdict from McLachlin. She said he got a significant personal benefit without any evidenced justification.

And a similar arrangement in which three times his salary ($900,000) would be paid to his estate if he died while still employed at the legislature was also ruled out of bounds. Even so, McLachlin said that arrangement might still be in effect.

Regarding the legislature log splitter, which became the absurd symbol of the entire bizarre saga, she said buying it didn't constitute misconduct. But keeping it at his home and firing it up for his own use did.

She looked at his lengthy excuse and said it bordered on nonsensical.

Plecas was the whistleblower who started the process that led to James' downfall. But McLachlin took a severe view of how he handled the role. She noted that he went along with some of the conduct that he later criticized. He signed off on some of the benefits that he now impugns, she said.

He became increasingly concerned and developed a new perspective on the problems.

"Yet the Speaker said nothing."

McLachlin questioned why Plecas, as the boss, didn't take up the problems with his underlings.

She said he viewed it as a police investigation and criminal proceeding, rather than promptly confronting and correcting the problems.

"He focused on an investigatory line of inquiry at the expense of his duty to ensure the affairs of the legislative assembly were properly administered."

Nonetheless, his suspicions about the clerk appear to be confirmed.

One of McLachlin's observations on the log splitter sums up the entire story: "It's hard to understand what was going through Mr. James' mind."

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