The bombshell report released by Speaker Darryl Plecas Monday includes suggestions that suspended Clerk Craig James was closely aligned with the BC Liberal Party.
“It is essential that the clerk of the House is, and is seen to be, a nonpartisan role,” Plecas wrote. The preliminary report doesn’t draw any conclusions about whether James was partisan, he noted.
“However, it is undoubtedly the case that he is seen to be by some people, and appearances are important.”
A spokesperson for James and Sergeant-at-Arms Gary Lenz didn’t respond by publication time to questions sent by email. In their statement released Monday they issued a blanket denial of wrongdoing and said they would respond in detail in due course.
In his lengthy report, Plecas detailed alleged concerns including overspending on luxurious trips, the legislature paying for the pair’s personal purchases and inappropriate cash payouts.
In November, members of the legislative assembly voted unanimously to suspend James, the top staff person in the $80-million-a-year legislature, and Lenz, the head of security.
The RCMP confirmed at the time that it was investigating and two special prosecutors were appointed to oversee the investigation.
Plecas said in his report he first heard the allegation that James was partisan from Lenz in the fall of 2017. “Mr. Lenz expressed the view that Mr. James was not impartial and that he was in fact very close with the BC Liberal Party... I determined to reserve judgment on that subject.”
He wrote that others shared the impression that James was partisan thanks to decisions he had made while acting as the chief electoral officer on an interim basis starting in 2010.
While there, James fired Linda Johnston, the deputy CEO who had been involved in a ruling that the government couldn’t send out a taxpayer-funded mailing promoting the HST in advance of the referendum. Then BC Liberal finance minister Colin Hansen called the ruling “surprising and disappointing.” James delayed forwarding the anti-HST petition to the committee that was to consider it. And he initially rejected an application to recall Oak Bay-Gordon Head MLA Ida Chong, a BC Liberal, on grounds the proponents viewed as a technicality.
“Multiple witnesses... have informed the Speaker of their view that Mr. James was aligned with the BC Liberals (with some suggesting that Mr. James’ unexpected appointment as clerk of the House was connected to his 'doing a job' for the government as acting chief electoral office),” Plecas wrote.
Meeting many Liberals
Plecas’s report lists 39 meetings within B.C. that James travelled to between March 15, 2017 and Aug. 30, 2018. Three of the trips were to Penticton and the rest were day trips to the Lower Mainland.
“In many cases, it is not clear how the meetings fall within Mr. James’ responsibilities as clerk of the House,” Plecas wrote. “He often claims mileage that exceeds what would be expected given the indicated destination.” In some cases, he claimed for both mileage and taxi fares, Plecas alleged.
The bulk of the meetings — 70 per cent — were with current or former BC Liberal MLAs and others with connections to the party.
He met with Geoff Plant 14 times. Plant was an MLA from 1996 to 2005 and served as the attorney general during the BC Liberals’ first term under then premier Gordon Campbell. In an emailed statement Plant said “I have provided legal advice and representation to Craig James (in his capacity as clerk of the House) and the legislative assembly on a regular basis for a number of years. Craig and I have had many meetings in that capacity. Our discussions, of course, are privileged.”
James travelled to Vancouver four times to meet with Christy Clark. The first meeting was July 17, 2017, the day before the swearing in of the NDP government. The other three meetings with Clark were after she was no longer premier.
There were four meetings with John Hunter, a lawyer who was acting for Conflict of Interest Commissioner Paul Fraser in a court challenge by the advocacy group Democracy Watch seeking to overturn Fraser’s ruling that cleared Christy Clark of an alleged conflict.
There was a meeting with Al Horning, a one-term BC Liberal MLA who hadn’t sat in the legislature since 2009. And another one with Paul Barbeau, who BC Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson appointed to represent the leader on the executive of the BC Liberal Party.
On another trip James visited Dan Davies, the BC Liberal MLA for Peace River North who was seriously injured while moonlighting at a job in a concrete plant, in hospital.
On April 30, 2018, there was an overnight trip to Abbotsford, Kelowna and Penticton for a meeting with Michael de Jong and Steve Thomson, two former BC Liberal cabinet ministers who were sitting in opposition. On another trip he also met with de Jong.
And there were four meetings with Bill Barisoff, a former BC Liberal Speaker who hadn’t sat in the legislature since 2013.
In contrast, James travelled twice to meet with Plecas, the Speaker in office during the period covered.
On Jan. 31, 2018, James travelled to a “Meeting at Liberal Vancouver Offices,” though the report doesn’t say with whom he met.
The only NDP member who appears in the list is Raj Chouhan, the MLA for Burnaby-Edmonds and the deputy Speaker in the legislature, who James met with five times. Nobody with apparent Green Party connections appears on the list.
Certainly there have been indications in the past that the NDP didn’t see James as unbiased.
In June 2011, at least in part based on James’s record at Elections BC, NDP MLAs voted against the government’s motion to appoint him as clerk. John Horgan, who was then NDP house leader, and NDP leader at the time Adrian Dix argued that there should have been an open competition for the clerk’s job.
Another section of the Plecas report suggests that James’s relationship with the BC Liberals may have been somewhat more complicated.
Plecas wrote that James was encouraging him to submit a receipt for a suit he’d bought at Ede & Ravenscroft in London so that he could be reimbursed. “I said I wasn’t going to do that, but I didn’t want to alarm him, so I added something to the effect of me being a public figure and that my expenses are undoubtedly scrutinized by the members of the Opposition,” Plecas wrote.
“He replied that I shouldn’t worry. He said that if they took issue with my expenses, he could put an end to it because he had ‘so much dirt on the Liberals’ and that he could threaten to ‘stop paying their legal bills’ or ‘quit paying their severance payments.’ I don’t know what he was talking about, but it seemed an unusual comment.”
Plecas suggested making changes to the appointment process to ensure future clerks get their jobs through an open competition process or that they are appointed following a unanimous recommendation of an all-party committee.
Spokespeople for the BC Liberal caucus didn’t respond to emailed messages Tuesday.
But Garry Begg, NDP MLA for Surrey-Guildford and a member of the Legislative Assembly Management Committee, said James needs to explain why he had so many meetings with BC Liberals during the period covered in the report. “Obviously those are questions that have to be answered,” he said. “It is, as you know, peculiar that he would spend so much time meeting with the Liberals, but I suppose there may be all kinds of explanations for that.”
Begg said he’s concerned about the “systemic organizational failing” at the legislature outlined in the report. “That is very distressing to me as an elected member of the legislature and I’m sure it’s very concerning for the people of British Columbia. These government institutions are meant to be bastions of trust, and anything that sort of detracts from that is very disturbing.”
He noted BC Liberal Speakers had apparently failed to identify any problems. The Tyee was unable to reach the two most recent Speakers, MLA Linda Reid and Barisoff.
Before running for office in 2017, Begg was a police investigator. Some aspects of the report suggest a need for police investigation, he said, “but it’s probably premature in light of the ongoing police investigation for me to isolate what I think they are.”
Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver told reporters Tuesday that the “culture of entitlement” the report showed was troubling, as were details of how James had done the job.
“The clerk’s office is supposed to be an independent office of this legislature,” he said. “We’ve got obvious questions that need to be addressed with respect to the relationship between the clerk’s office and the BC Liberal Party. Very obvious questions.”
He said he no longer knew who he could trust at the legislature and that the public has likely lost trust in the institution as well.
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