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Plecas vs. James and Lenz: A Flurry of Assertions in Seven Rounds

Now that Leg officials have punched back, here’s a scorecard to keep track.

By Andrew MacLeod 12 Feb 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria and the author of All Together Healthy (Douglas & McIntyre, 2018). Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

In deciding whether to fire two top legislature officials who are currently suspended and under police investigation, members of the Legislative Assembly Management Committee will have to decide who they trust more: the officials or Speaker Darryl Plecas.

That’s because Clerk Craig James and Sergeant-at-Arms Gary Lenz reject nearly every allegation Plecas made in a report released Jan. 21.

As James, who had been the legislature’s top unelected official, put it at the top of his 24-page response, which was submitted to LAMC Thursday and leaked to media Friday, “The report is inaccurate. I have not engaged in wrongdoing or misconduct. Furthermore, the report is in many instances, illogical.”

And Lenz, the head of security, in his own separate 62-page response said, “I have done nothing wrong and I want to return to work.”

In his report, Plecas wrote that after he became Speaker in fall 2017, he, “Learned of a number of allegations, and personally observed or was party to numerous conversations or activities, which made me deeply uncomfortable with the conduct of the Clerk of the Legislative Assembly and the Sergeant-at-Arms, and with the impact it has had on the functioning and culture of the Legislative Assembly more generally.”

Over 73 pages, Plecas detailed concerns about questionable retirement benefits, missing legislature property, a truckload of alcohol removed from the building, excessive travel spending and inappropriate expense claims.

James and Lenz in their responses — which they each noted were written quickly and without access to staff and documents at the legislature — provided point-by-point counter arguments, repeatedly questioning the speaker’s facts and perceptions.

Here’s a blow-by-blow summary of what each side claims.

Round one: The wood splitter, watches, cufflinks, suits and souvenirs

Start with the wood splitter, a purchase that became emblematic of the speaker’s concerns and even inspired a satiric song.

According to Plecas, “The Speaker received information that a wood-splitter and work/tools trailer were purchased by the Legislative Assembly, but never arrived on site and instead were delivered directly to Mr. James’ personal residence where they have allegedly been used by Mr. James and Mr. Lenz for their own purposes.” Together the two pieces of equipment cost $13,200.

Here’s Lenz: “The allegations that I (together with the Clerk) have misappropriated a wood splitter and trailer for personal use are false. I have never seen or used the trailer or wood splitter.”

And James: “These items were purchased by the Legislative Assembly, through proper processes, for proper purposes. I was storing them while storage space at the Legislature (including a concrete pad and path for the trailer) was being constructed. This was supposed to be a short term proposition but it dragged on. All of this was done in the open and known to many people.”

There are similar assertions that purchases of watches, cufflinks, suits and souvenirs were entirely appropriate.

Round two: The magazines

James did acknowledge that some of the magazine subscriptions he billed to the legislature were for personal use and therefore inappropriate as expenses, and said he would pay back the cost.

Round three: The unused vacation days

A much bigger deal is payments that were made to both Lenz and James for their banked vacation days, which over years added up to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“The Legislative Assembly has a policy of encouraging employees to take vacation entitlement as time away from work,” Plecas wrote. “Legislative Assembly policy is that staff must use a minimum of 15 of their allotted vacation days each year.”

In circumstances where vacations couldn’t be scheduled because people were needed at the legislature, unused days could be rolled over into the next year or paid out. “Additional days are not to be paid out in lieu unless there are extraordinary circumstances,” he said, noting that the policy was even tougher in the past.

In the case of James and Lenz, however, payouts had become routine. “Multiple witnesses with relevant first-hand knowledge informed the Speaker that both Mr. James and Mr. Lenz make a regular practice of receiving payment in lieu of their vacation days. Witnesses also stated that Mr. James and Mr. Lenz appeared to regularly take time off and holidays, but often do not record these as official vacation days. In Mr. James’ case, for example, it was observed by a number of witnesses that he was rarely to be seen at work on Fridays.”

According to James, the policy was unclear and taking the payouts was long-standing practice for him and others. “We work hard, and are required to be in the Legislative Assembly when the legislature is sitting, and have other significant management and other responsibilities we perform at other times; generally speaking, it is not practicable for us to take our full allotment of vacation days.”

The payments were approved through appropriate channels, he said. “Receipt of a payout of vacation was consistent with settled practice. If there is a concern about this moving forward, I believe the LAMC should consider the issue and develop clear rules.” Nor was it accurate to say he rarely worked Fridays, he said.

Lenz argued his responsibilities have grown since he first took the job. “Given all of the original and additional duties that have been given to the Sergeant-at-Arms and are now expected, scheduling personal holidays has proven to be extremely difficult,” he said.

“I do not work regular hours: I work long hours in addition to my scheduled hours (which are extremely lengthy when the House is in session). I often work evenings and weekends to keep up with the volume of work that is required of me.”

It’s so hard to find a time to be away that he’s postponed family holidays, he added. “We see this sacrifice as a service to society. Even when I do find time to take a vacation, I often spend time on work-related matters during my travel.”

He noted, “My leave and vacation payouts have been approved by the Clerk, as it is with all other staff that report to him.”

It is worth noting that there is a deputy sargeant-at-arms who was available while Lenz made trips to the United Kingdom, China and elsewhere. When Lenz and James were suspended, both their deputies stepped in and the work of the legislature continued without skipping a beat, as Premier John Horgan observed in comments he made in November.

Round four: The retirement payment

Another big ticket item was a retirement payment made in 2012 to James under a 1984 policy that Plecas doubted James was entitled to, though it had been signed off on by former Speaker Bill Barisoff.

“It appears ... that Mr. James or Mr. Barisoff became aware of the 1984 memo at some point prior to Feb. 13, 2012, because on that date, Mr. Barisoff wrote (or at least signed) a memorandum to Mr. James in which he purported to terminate (in 2012) the programme that had in fact ended in 1987,” he wrote.

“The memorandum said that a consequence of terminating the programme was that its outstanding accrued liabilities had to be paid out. Mr. James thereby received a payment of $257,988.38, less taxes.”

In his response, James said the creation of the benefit was not his idea, though the Plecas report had not suggested that it had been.

“A legal opinion regarding the validity of the retirement allowance was provided to former Speaker Barisoff at his request,” James wrote. “After receiving the opinion, Speaker Barisoff confirmed the program was in effect, but also brought it to an end.”

James is silent on what the legal opinion actually said.

Nor does the Plecas report include it. He concluded that more investigation was needed. “It appears that the payment to Mr. James was a payment of questionable authority and it ought to be investigated properly with consideration given as to whether it was authorized.”

Round five: The alcohol

Another allegation where former speaker Barisoff pops up has to do with what happened to an estimated $10,000 worth of alcohol that left the legislature.

Plecas wrote that he’d received reports that needed further investigation, “regarding a large amount of alcohol being loaded into the Clerk’s truck and perhaps taken to Mr. Barisoff’s house in the Okanagan ... The alcohol was apparently left over from a conference or event that the Clerk hosted and was placed in a basement vault from which it was later loaded into the truck.”

In Lenz’s response, he confirms that alcohol left the legislature in James’s truck, but says he assumed it was being returned and had no reason to believe anything wrong was happening.

“The incident the Speaker refers to happened in 2013,” Lenz wrote. “The Clerk, assisted by [a] member of the legislative facilities staff loaded unopened boxes and bottles of alcohol into the Clerk’s truck on two occasions. This was done openly in the middle of the day.”

James however, wrote that he did deliver at least some liquor to Barisoff. “What I do remember is that, along with a desk and chair that had been presented to him, and other personal effects, I took some amount of alcohol to Mr. Barisoff’s house (certainly not $10,000 worth) in the Okanagan,” he wrote.

“I remember that Mr. Barisoff provided a cheque for the alcohol, payable to the Legislative Assembly. It should be in the records, which are unavailable to me.”

The Tyee has been unable to reach Barisoff, but the Times Colonist quoted him in January saying no liquor had been delivered to his house by James.

And the Kelowna Daily Courier quoted Barisoff saying, “The fact the reports suggest that I had received $10,000 worth of alcohol delivered to my house is troubling when it didn’t happen.”

Round six: The headphones

Regarding a $500 pair of noise-cancelling headphones, James said that a medical condition justified charging them to the legislative assembly. “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.”

He does not specify the condition nor say why he thinks it would be the employer’s responsibility to buy the headphones and not his own.

Round seven: The luggage

James confirmed that he bought luggage in the Hong Kong airport that he claimed as an expense. “Several MLAs had requested the purchase of pieces of luggage which could form a small pool of luggage that would be available for anyone at the Legislative Assembly (staff or member) for official travel,” he wrote. “The Speaker himself had complained to me that he felt he did not have sufficient luggage for the travel he was engaged in.”

Even before James’s response became available, Green Party leader Andrew Weaver had been mocking the idea that the legislature would have luggage for communal use.

In January, Weaver wrote on Twitter, “Heading out of town 4 two days. I figured I’d use the $1000 MLA suitcase. Committee clerk office sent me to Clerk office who sent me to Sargeant at Arms office who sent me to Clerks office (which I pointed out I’d been 2) before phoning Acting Sargeant who had no idea.”

In November when members of the legislative assembly voted unanimously to suspend James and Lenz, the RCMP confirmed it was investigating and that two special prosecutors were appointed to oversee the investigation and recommend whether charges would be appropriate.

LAMC will have to decide whether to recommend to the legislature whether to continue the suspensions of Lenz and James, ask them to return to work, or fire them.  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics

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