The former clerk of British Columbia’s Legislative Assembly was found guilty of fraud and breach of trust in B.C. Supreme Court on May 19.
Associate Chief Justice Heather Holmes ruled that Craig James spent almost $1,900 of taxpayers’ money to buy a custom suit and dress shirts from luxury boutiques for personal use. James, she said, “dishonestly described them as for chamber attire when he knew they were not, and received reimbursement on that false basis.”
Said Holmes: “His premise was a dishonest one to benefit himself.”
James was the BC Liberal caucus-appointed chief executive of the seat of government in 2011, but was suddenly suspended in November 2018 after then-Speaker Darryl Plecas and chief of staff Alan Mullen called in the RCMP to investigate corruption. Sergeant-at-Arms Gary Lenz was suspended at the same time.
The top two permanent officers of the Legislature both claimed they did no wrong and demanded their jobs back, but retired in disgrace in 2019 without reimbursing taxpayers. In May of that year, James was found to have committed four types of misconduct. Lenz quit five months later to avoid discipline under the Police Act for breaching his oath.
James, but not Lenz, was charged under the Criminal Code in late 2020 and pleaded not guilty to three charges of breach of trust by a public official and two charges of fraud over $5,000. He stood trial before Holmes alone from Jan. 24 to March 3 at the Law Courts in Vancouver, but did not testify in his own defence.
Though Holmes found him guilty on two charges, James is officially convicted on one. Special Prosecutor David Butcher asked for a conditional stay on the fraud conviction because a person cannot be convicted more than once on the same facts from the same criminal act, known in Canadian law as the Kienapple principle.
Holmes found James not guilty for his roles in creating and keeping a $258,000 retirement allowance and purchasing a $13,000 wood splitter and trailer combo that he kept at his home.
On the retirement allowance, Holmes agreed with the Crown that James breached the standard of conduct expected of him in a serious and marked way by putting himself in a conflict of interest. “The potential benefit to him personally was extremely large and he should have disengaged entirely and stepped away from any further involvement.”
“Mr. James always received substantial employee benefits throughout his employment as a table officer, and the 1984 memoranda in my view made clear that the award was created to substitute for benefits that the table officers were not receiving at that time,” Holmes said.
She found it possible that James was selective in what he provided lawyer Don Farquhar and that he was opportunistic and self-serving, but strong suspicion is not sufficient to establish criminality. Though she ruled he was likely not entitled to the long service award, Holmes concluded that James was not acting criminally, because Farquhar’s advice may have led him to sincerely believe that he was entitled.
She called the purchase of the woodsplitter and trailer ill-advised or unnecessarily extravagant and unusual for a person in James’s position, but the evidence did not establish he was dishonest or self-serving. The purchases went through appropriate approvals and nothing showed that James or other senior staff used the equipment as “toys for personal use.”
“It is true that as the senior [B.C. Legislature] official Mr. James could have insisted that a suitable parking spot be identified and prepared more quickly. And, if he wanted to participate in the decision-making process, or even to make the decision himself, he could have done so much earlier than he did. Mr. James’s failure to do these things may not speak well of his management of LABC staff and its operations, but, on all the evidence I cannot conclude that it indicates that he was deliberately trying to delay the delivery of the wood splitter and trailer to the LABC precinct for improper reasons.”
As for travel expenses, Holmes called James’s purchase of $11,500 worth of clothing, luggage, books and souvenirs over five years to be astonishing and questionable and the purpose to be “less than clear or convincing.”
“Equally, Mr. James’s failure, as clerk, to introduce policies to more clearly guide the bases for reimbursement, particularly in light of the blistering  reports of the Auditor General, may well indicate a poor attitude toward his responsibilities and a disinclination to bring rigour to the financial management of the LABC, but those failures too do not of themselves mean he was dishonest.”
She did, however, find James committed both breach of trust and fraud when he spent a total $1,886.72 on a dress shirt and a tie at Brooks Brothers in Vancouver in January and August 2018 and a suit from Ede and Ravenscroft in London in August 2018.
“He knew it would deprive the LABC of funds he ought not to have been reimbursed. His purpose was a dishonest one, to benefit himself at the public’s expense. The elements of breach of trust by a public official and fraud are proven beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Lawyers for the Crown and defence will appear before Holmes on May 26 to schedule a sentencing hearing.
In closing statements in March, Special Prosecutor Brock Martland said that James took steps that were “strange and unconventional for the equivalent of a CEO.”
“We trust leaders to lead, we trust the people on the public payroll will not embezzle or steal or misappropriate money or things,” Martland told the court.
James’s lawyer Gavin Cameron said the case was one of negligence, rather than corruption.
“He’s guilty of bureaucratic ineptitude. That’s not a crime,” Cameron said.
In an interview after the verdict, Plecas said he was pleased justice was served, but regretted the resistance felt every step of the way.
From Lenz’s reluctance to investigate James to the indifference of Auditor General Carol Bellringer, who did not conduct a promised audit. From BC Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson and house leader Mary Polak’s attempts to stifle the investigation to certain members of the press gallery who defended James and criticized Plecas instead. Taxpayers weren’t made whole and James negotiated an exit three years ago that included banning Legislature employees from being criticizing him publicly.
“Breach of trust is breach of trust, fraud is fraud. It isn’t that one is more serious than another,” Plecas said. “He was, as the judge said, acting in a dishonest manner, abusing the public trust, the taxpayer.”
“The fact that he didn’t get convicted of them all doesn’t change anything. But the principle is the same. We have an individual who was in a position of trust, he abused that trust, he was found guilty of that.”
Holmes’s reasons for judgment effectively debunked the statement James made at a press conference in his lawyer’s office in late 2018, when he claimed innocence and demanded his job back.
“I have established processes in the Legislative Assembly that are essentially bulletproof,” James boasted on Nov. 26, 2018.
Mullen said the system was far from bulletproof. It was actually prone to manipulation.
“He didn’t create anything,” Mullen said. “And, furthermore, I would suggest that those those checks and balances have yet to be implemented. We need to have transparency in the ‘people’s house’ and that’s all the former speaker and I have been saying from day one. It was never about the individual that is Craig James or Gary Lenz or anybody else. There is something fundamentally flawed and we’ve got to do better.”
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