Did suspended B.C. Legislature Clerk Craig James show favouritism to Christy Clark and the BC Liberals in return for awarding him the job in 2011 without competition?
That is a nagging question that Speaker Darryl Plecas leaves open for the reader to decide in his devastating Jan. 21 report that alleges corruption in the Legislature.
“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 Officer),” Plecas wrote, referring to James’s much-criticized oversight of the anti-Harmonized Sales Tax petition in 2010.
James got the promotion from clerk of committees in a controversial vote on June 2, 2011 when Rich Coleman was BC Liberal house leader. Then-NDP leader Adrian Dix did not dispute James’s qualifications to succeed the retiring George MacMinn, but steadfastly maintained there should have been a competitive process through the Legislative Assembly Management Committee. Instead, the BC Liberals, under then-premier Clark, used their majority to rubber-stamp James’s appointment.
“If he truly wanted to respect the position he holds, he would’ve said to the government this is not the right way to do it, even if it cost him the job,” said Dermod Travis of IntegrityBC. “The institution should always be more important than the individual holding the position in the institution.”
Plecas wrote that, early in his tenure as speaker, the suspended Sergeant-at-Arms Gary Lenz told him that James “was not impartial, and that he was in fact very close with the BC Liberal Party… Lenz added that I should not trust Mr. James.”
The clerk’s job description requires “full support of all political parties and [the clerk] must be seen as being even-handed and not connected to any political party.”
A comment by James nearly a year later suggested his relationship with the BC Liberals was complex.
After returning from an August 2018 trip to the United Kingdom, James asked Plecas when he would submit his bill for a $1,100 suit bought at the posh Ede & Ravenscroft store in London. Plecas said he wouldn’t charge taxpayers for the clothing.
“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 recalled. “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.”
Said IntegrityBC’s Travis, “Anybody who is a clerk of any Legislature is going to hear anything that might pass through the halls of the Legislature. The fact that he would believe such information could be used to influence public debate is deplorable. That is so counter to what the job of the clerk of the Legislature is.”
Plecas found James spent almost $11,000 on 36 trips via Harbour Air, HeliJet and BC Ferries assured loading between Victoria and Vancouver over 18 months. He also took three trips to Penticton to meet Bill Barisoff, the BC Liberal who spent eight years in the speaker’s chair until 2013.
“The stated purpose of those trips listed on his expense claim form is typically a single meeting; in many cases, it is not clear how the meetings fall within Mr. James’ responsibilities as Clerk of the House,” said Plecas’s report. “On these trips, Mr. James often expenses lunches for the entire group attending the meeting; if not, he consistently claims a per diem for the relevant meal. He often claims mileage that exceeds what would be expected given the indicated destination.”
Which BC Liberals did James meet?
During the period, James traveled to meet with Clark in Vancouver: once on July 17, 2017, her final day as premier, and the remainder — Oct. 13, 2017, Dec. 14, 2017, and May 2, 2018 — after she was out of politics. On the latter date, James billed taxpayers $120.18 for lunch at the Seasons in the Park restaurant.
Clark did not respond to email and phone interview requests about her meetings with James.
“She won’t be providing any comments on that,” said Gul Gulsen, Clark’s chief of staff at the Bennett Jones law firm where she is a special advisor. (Gulsen spent two tours of duty as executive assistant in the premier’s office.)
James traveled to Vancouver most often for meetings with Geoff Plant, the former 19-year BC Liberal MLA who was attorney general from 2001 to 2005. Plant remains active in the party: a year ago, Plant was the chief returning officer for the leadership contest that resulted in Andrew Wilkinson’s win.
theBreaker.news counted 14 meetings with Plant. He is now a partner with the Gall Legge Grant Zwack law firm that billed the Legislature $105,478 for the year-ended March 31, 2018.
June 20, 2018 was a particularly interesting day. James’s meeting with Plant was related to the quashing of Lenz’s investigation into a complaint by whistleblower Connor Gibson, a BC Liberal staffer fired after questioning orders to submit improper expense claims on behalf of Linda Reid, the longtime Richmond MLA who was speaker from 2013 to 2017.
That same meeting included an $80.40 lunch at the Marriott Hotel’s Showcase Restaurant with real estate lawyer Paul Barbeau. At the time, Barbeau was Wilkinson’s handpicked representative on the party executive board, which manages the party’s budget, finances and promotes its purposes and principles, according to a March 21 announcement on the Barbeau Evans website. Last November, Barbeau became BC Liberal president. His firm did not show up on the list of Legislature suppliers over $25,000 for the last fiscal year.
Neither Barbeau nor Plant returned phone calls or emails from theBreaker.news.
Most-intriguing, however, was the reason for the meeting.
James’s expense form reads: “Vancouver-Point Grey.”
That is the name of the riding represented by NDP Attorney General David Eby, whose responsibilities also include auto insurance, gambling and liquor. Eby knocked-off Clark in the 2013 election. Wilkinson’s right-hand-man Barbeau has openly opposed the NDP’s new tax on residential property worth more than $3 million (he lives at a Dunbar property worth more than $5 million). Staff at party headquarters helped organize lawn signs, protests and anonymous online petitions targeting Eby in Vancouver-Point Grey over what the NDP has euphemistically called a “school surtax.”
While James visited Vancouver that day via BC Ferries assured loading — which cost $310 round-trip — he also took a detour to Vancouver International Airport and included a $4.50 charge for a 14-minute stay at the parking lot in his expense report. It does not identify who he was dropping-off or picking-up.
James also traveled to Vancouver for a Jan. 31, 2018 meeting at the Liberal Vancouver offices, four days before the party’s leadership election. The expense claim does not say who he met there. On April 4 of last year, he visited BC Liberal MLA Dan Davies in a Vancouver hospital, after Davies suffered an injury while working part-time at a Fort St. John construction site.
James’s expenses also show he met on four occasions with lawyer John Hunter, whose Hunter Litigation Chambers billed the Legislature $44,866 for the last fiscal year. Two of the meetings, on May 4 and 17, 2017, are in dispute.
Hunter was named as a judge to the B.C. Court of Appeal on April 12, 2017 and sworn-in eight days later. theBreaker.news provided Bruce Cohen, the spokesman for B.C.’s superior courts, a copy of James’s May 17, 2017 expense claim. But Cohen said Hunter told him he did not speak to or meet with James “at any time” after his judicial appointment was announced.
James and Lenz are under investigation by the RCMP and two special prosecutors, but deny wrongdoing. They are represented by lawyers from the Fasken law firm, which donated $439,785 to the BC Liberals between 2005 and 2017.
Plecas was twice-elected as a BC Liberal MLA in Abbotsford South, but his membership was cancelled after becoming speaker in September 2017. He had threatened earlier that summer to leave caucus and sit as an independent if Clark did not quit as leader.
theBreaker.news exclusively reported that the “final straw” for Plecas was Clark’s plan to replace non-partisan constituency office workers with BC Liberal staff in a bid to undermine the NDP government. Legislature rules require constituency offices to be non-political environments.
Plecas, who was a criminology professor before entering politics, is a rare independent speaker. He is not beholden to any party leader to sign his nomination papers, should he seek re-election.
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