Questions persist around the surprise resignation of British Columbia Auditor General Carol Bellringer.
On Sept. 24, Bellringer gave her notice to Speaker Darryl Plecas, as per her enabling legislation. She cited personal reasons and set Dec. 31 for her departure. Bellringer began her eight-year term in September 2014.
Bellringer has declined to do any interviews and did not respond to a request by theBreaker.news for her to clarify a key finding from her Sept. 19 report on expense policies in the offices of the speaker, clerk and sergeant-at-arms.
“Quite surprised actually, certainly at the timing of it,” said Speaker Darryl Plecas’s chief of staff, Alan Mullen, in an interview on theBreaker.news Podcast. “Some folks in the mainstream media are drawing this line, as they have done so in the past, that somehow this is direct result of the speaker or us in the speaker’s office essentially pushing people out. That is not true.”
In an exclusive interview with theBreaker.news on Sept. 20, the day after Bellringer’s report, Plecas said he was puzzled why Bellringer chose not to conduct the promised forensic audit. He was also shocked that she failed to find any fraud.
Said independent watchdog Dermod Travis of IntegrityBC: “In reading the report, I sense that it is not as thorough as it might be and almost seems slapped together, which is not what you would expect from B.C.’s auditor general, not what you’d want.”
Travis said he would be interested to know how thoroughly Bellringer read Plecas’s January report on Clerk Craig James and Sergeant-at-Arms Gary Lenz’s unethical spending or retired Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin’s May report that found James in misconduct. James negotiated his retirement the night before publication of the report and his certain firing by the Legislature.
At bare minimum, Travis said, Bellringer had a responsibility to take the examples in Plecas’s report and “put some shoes on and go verify them.”
“One of the unfair developments in this file has been this ongoing attack on the speaker related to the expense claims the two individuals have submitted, and allegations regarding those expense claims,” he said. It would have been “auditor general 101” for Bellringer to follow through and determine whether Plecas was right or wrong, he said.
Bellringer’s report contains a substantial contradiction that raises serious questions about her work.
McLachlin concluded that James committed misconduct when he used taxpayer funds to buy suits in London for personal use, because the “associated claims and reimbursement breached Legislative Assembly rules and policies and constituted misconduct.”
McLachlin ruled that the General Expenditure Policy, Capital Project Review and Approval and Procurement and Contract Management all applied.
But, four months later, Bellringer wrote in the key findings and recommendations section of her report that, “In the absence of clear policy in this area, it would be difficult for someone approving expenses to determine whether or not the clothing expenses are appropriate and to ensure that any purchases are economical.”
Travis said there is no evidence that Bellringer contacted James or Lenz. Her enabling legislation includes the power to summons witnesses, and request testimony under oath and the production of documents. The law says uncooperative witnesses can be found in contempt by a B.C. Supreme Court judge.
Travis also noted eerie similarities to Bellringer’s tenure as Manitoba’s auditor general. In 2013, she quit for personal reasons. Bellringer earlier lobbied to conduct an audit of a whistleblower’s complaints at Manitoba Hydro, but she was ultimately denied in 2009 because she had served as a director of the Crown corporation and the audit committee chair.
Earlier this year, the Legislative Assembly Management Committee decided to refer the Legislature spending case to an auditor-general outside B.C. But Bellringer successfully lobbied LAMC to do an about-face and give the task to her, despite one of her employees being the husband of acting Legislature clerk Kate Ryan-Lloyd, compliance, controls and research manager Ken Ryan-Lloyd.
Bellringer was appointed by unanimous recommendation of a special all-party committee in 2014 that was chaired by former BC Liberal cabinet minister John Yap. At the time, Yap was not cooperating with the RCMP’s breach of trust investigation into the Quick Wins scandal.
Twenty-one people applied for the job, including nine from B.C. Six were shortlisted and two invited for interviews before the May 2014 decision. The deliberations of the committee, however, remain a secret. Last year, Bellringer collected $303,000 in pay.
Meanwhile, James collected a $63,750 vacation payout and $1,174 vehicle allowance for the April to June quarter. He also took $50,829 salary, $2,509 benefits and $5,007 pension while suspended.
At $123,269, the retired-in-disgrace James received the most of the five Legislative Assembly senior staffers for the quarter.
Lenz was paid $61,889, including $53,437 salary and $1,067 vehicle allowance. He remains suspended with pay, but is facing a Police Act investigation by former Vancouver Police deputy chief Doug LePard.
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