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HomeBusinessExclusive: Suspended James and Lenz may face Canada customs probe over Legislature travel expenses

Exclusive: Suspended James and Lenz may face Canada customs probe over Legislature travel expenses

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Bob Mackin

The suspended clerk and sergeant-at-arms of British Columbia’s Legislative Assembly may be under investigation by the Canada Border Services Agency, in addition to the RCMP investigation that began last year.

In his Jan. 21-published report about misconduct by senior officers of the Legislature, Speaker Darryl Plecas wrote about his conversation with Clerk Craig James during their December 2017 business trip to the United Kingdom for a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association meeting.

Clerk Craig James (right) and Speaker Darryl Plecas (left) meeting in London with Akbar Khan of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association in 2017 (BC Leg/Twitter)

“When we were preparing to fly home, I commented that I had bought quite a bit of scotch and that it was likely to cost me a fair sum in duties,” Plecas wrote. “Mr. James replied along the lines of, ‘do as I do — don’t declare anything’. I didn’t take that advice, and I was struck by the brazenness of that comment.”

theBreaker.newsreviewed the exhibits for the Plecas Report and found no expense claims submitted by either James or Sergeant-at-Arms Gary Lenz for repayment of customs duties and related federal and provincial taxes. During that Dec. 1-11, 2017 trip to the U.K., for example, James bought $1,447.06 in goods, including souvenirs, cufflinks, a watch, liquor and luggage. James also claimed $1,327.29 after an August 2018 business trip for “chamber attire (uniform)” from Ede and Ravenscroft, which advertises itself as the oldest tailor shop in London and Queen Elizabeth II’s robe maker and tailor.

theBreaker.news asked CBSA whether it was aware of the relevant passage in the Plecas Report and whether James and Lenz declared to CBSA the purchases they made while on business trips outside of Canada.

“It is not the practice of the CBSA to confirm or deny whether or not it is investigating a certain individual or entity,” wrote Benjamin Letts, senior communications advisor for  the CBSA operations branch, in a statement to theBreaker.news.”

The CBSA website states that Canadians are entitled to claim duty exemptions on $200 of personal purchases after a 24-hour absence and $800 for 48 hours or more. The CBSA website is also clear on the rules that apply to business travellers.

“Goods you bring in for commercial use or for another person do not qualify for the exemption and are subject to applicable duties and taxes,” the CBSA website states. 

“You must declare all goods you acquired while outside Canada, including purchases, gifts, prizes and awards that you have with you or are being shipped to you. You must declare goods purchased at a Canadian or foreign duty-free shop.”

When in doubt, the CBSA website states, declare and let the customs officer sort it out.

Craig James’s expense claim for a suit bought in London (B.C. Legislature)

“If you do not declare goods, or if you falsely declare them, the CBSA can seize the goods. You may permanently lose the goods or you may have to pay a penalty to get them back. Depending on the type of goods and the circumstances involved, the CBSA may impose a penalty that ranges from 25% to 70% of the value of the seized goods.”

When Plecas’s report was published Jan. 21, the Legislative Assembly Management Committee asked James and Lenz to submit a response by Feb. 1. James and Lenz asked for and received an extension to Feb. 7.

The Legislature voted unanimously to suspend them with pay on Nov. 20. Two special prosecutors had been appointed earlier in the fall, after the RCMP asked the Attorney-General’s ministry for one. Almost a week after the suspension, at a Vancouver news conference, the men claimed they did no wrong, offered to cooperate with the investigation and demanded their reinstatement. “He is innocent,” Christine James said about her husband, after theBreaker.news rang the doorbell at Craig James’s Saanich house on the day the Plecas Report was published.

James travelled annually to London from 2015 to 2018. He also visited India, Malta and Guyana in 2015, Guyana again in 2016, U.S. and Mexico in 2017 and Hong Kong, Macau and China last year. In the two years after he was appointed clerk by the BC Liberal government in 2011, James visited Sri Lanka, Australia, South Africa and Poland.

“Going back as far as the trip to Kenya [for Craig and Christine James to attend the 2010 Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference] and going through all those receipts, there is no indication on any duties being paid,” said Dermod Travis of IntegrityBC. “In light of what the clerk is alleged to have said in the presence of the speaker, it raises serious concerns about whether all of Canada’s customs regulations were respected by the clerk and staff when they were traveling outside the country.”

In December, theBreaker.news reported James was on track to meet or beat 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. 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. They also claimed a combined $6,587 in per diems. 

Interim Clerk Kate Ryan-Lloyd told theBreaker.news that the Clerk’s office has no policy about collecting frequent flyer points. That means James could have collected loyalty points from using his personal American Express card for Legislature business.

MLAs, however, cannot collect Air Miles or other airline bonus points on government-issued credit cards. When MLAs 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. 

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