Gary Lenz, the Sergeant-at-Arms of the British Columbia Legislature, charged taxpayers almost as much for travel expenses for six months of 2018 as he did for the entire 2017 fiscal year.
But the interim replacement for Clerk Craig James is refusing to provide details.
Lenz and James were suspended with pay on Nov. 20 by the Legislature, pending an investigation by the RCMP and two special prosecutors. Both men deny any wrongdoing and have hired lawyers and a public relations agency to demand their jobs back.
Lenz filed claims for $20,248 during the first six months of the 2018 fiscal year, compared to $23,606 for all of last year, when he was paid $218,167 in salary.
James was on track to meeting or beating his 2017 expense tally before Nov. 20. For the period of April 1-Sept. 30, he claimed $33,892 for domestic and international travel, accommodation, meals and per diems. In 2017, he racked-up $51,649 in expenses on top of his $347,090 salary.
A lion’s share of James’s expenses for the first and second quarters of 2018 were in the category of out-of-province/out-of-country travel ($23,719). Lenz billed $14,396 for travel outside B.C.
They also claimed a combined $6,587 in per diems. The standard daily expense allowance is $61, but per diems for travel outside Canada and the continental U.S. are reimbursed based on the National Joint Council federal public sector formula, which can be double or triple the daily domestic allowance, depending on the destination.
The Legislature is not covered by the freedom of information law, unlike government ministries and agencies. It publishes a basic summary of expenses for the top four officials. The report for the second quarter was published Dec. 14.
At the Dec. 6 Legislative Assembly Management Committee meeting, Speaker Darryl Plecas said that, shortly after his September 2017 appointment, serious concerns about the integrity of the Legislature were brought to him. He called for a forensic audit of the offices of James and Lenz.
“You will get every detail of how much I spent. You want full disclosure. The public deserves full disclosure. Boy, are they going to get it,” Plecas told the committee. “I would say this — one more point I want to make to emphasize how important this is. I am completely confident — completely confident — that those audits will show that we have a lot of work to do here. If the outcome of those audits did not outrage the public, did not outrage taxpayers, did not make them throw up, I will resign as Speaker, and [aide Alan] Mullen will resign as well.”
Dermod Travis of IntegrityBC said a forensic audit is not going to be fast. “We’re into something that’s going to be a long road.” The committee’s next meeting is Dec. 19.
Spending questions unanswered
theBreaker sent a series of questions about James and Lenz’s travel expenses to Acting Clerk Kate Ryan-Lloyd on Dec. 17. Several times in her reply, Ryan-Lloyd repeated the phrase “I am not in a position to provide the details that you are seeking.” She pointed theBreaker to generic expense policies on the Legislature’s website.
Ryan-Lloyd also said she was “not able to confirm” if a spouse or child accompanied James or Lenz during their trips in 2018. She said it is not the Legislature’s policy to reimburse travel costs for any accompanying persons.
Ryan-Lloyd also refused to answer questions about the $1,168 in Lenz’s miscellaneous expenses column for the second quarter. The miscellaneous expense category is supposed to cover conference fees, medical insurance, immunizations and business meeting expenses.
“I can confirm that those expenses may not necessarily be for goods and services,” she wrote.
Ryan-Lloyd, however, admitted that the Clerk’s office does not have a policy about collecting frequent flyer points. By contrast, MLAs cannot collect Air Miles or other airline bonus points on government-issued credit cards. The rule for MLAs states that when they accumulate bonus points on their personal cards from business travel, the points must not be used for any purpose other than legislative business, Commonwealth Parliamentary Association travel or as a donation to a recognized charity.
In response to follow-up questions, including one about what policy allowed her to avoid answering questions, Ryan-Lloyd said she is committed to transparency and accountability of public spending. “Due to recent circumstances, I am in the process of seeking legal advice regarding matters related to some of your questions,” she wrote. “I will certainly have a second look at your request once I am in a position to do so.”
Travis said the scandal at the Legislature only serves as a reminder why the freedom of information law must be expanded.
“It’s a problem that a number of legislatures have had in Canada, not to this degree, but the common lesson learned was you cannot have a legislature operation that has no accountability in it,” he said.
“The moment you leave that idea of having accountability behind, you end up ultimately, over time, with people feeling they’re entitled to their entitlements.”
London calling, Guangdong goodwill
Calls and email to James and Lenz’s lawyers, Mark Andrews and Gavin Cameron of the Vancouver firm Fasken, were not answered.
Ryan-Lloyd refused to break-down the costs for James and Lenz’s trips, but said their costs were similar to those for independent Abbotsford South MLA Plecas and deputy speaker Raj Chouhan, the NDP MLA in Burnaby-Edmonds. Unlike Legislature executives, MLAs’ receipts are published quarterly. For the first half of 2018, Plecas claimed $26,425 in expenses and Chouhan $11,852 under the column titled speaker-authorized travel. Their travel was commonly booked from James’s office.
James, Plecas and Chouhan travelled business class June 9-18 from Vancouver to Hong Kong to visit Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Dongguan, China. The purpose of the trip was to sign a letter of intent to conduct goodwill exchanges between the B.C. Legislature and the Standing Committee of Guangdong Provincial People’s Congress.
Guangdong government official Yan Jingping visited Plecas at the Legislature on May 29 after the 9th Conference of the World Guangdong Community Federation at the Vancouver Convention Centre.
Plecas also traveled with James and Lenz Aug. 1-13 to London, England for a business continuity, cybersecurity and disaster preparedness conference involving the United Kingdom’s MI5 Security Service. [A photograph of James’s wife Christine and her son from a previous relationship, shot on London’s Oxford Street, was published Aug. 12 on an Instagram account that shows James on 2015 and 2016 trips to London.]
Plecas’s other trip, Aug. 26-Sept. 2, took him to the National Legislative Services and Security Association training conference at the Virginia state capitol in Richmond, Va. Plecas was a speaker on Aug. 30, the fifth and final day of the conference, about government leadership.
theBreaker began asking questions about spending by Legislature officers before the scandal erupted. On Nov. 19, Plecas referred questions about costs of the China trip to James, who theBreaker had already asked for comment. James did not respond.
James was escorted out of the Legislature during the middle of the next day.
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