The former speaker of the B.C. Legislature, who called in the RCMP to investigate Craig James, is surprised the disgraced former clerk was not sent to jail.
B.C. Supreme Court Associate Chief Justice Heather Holmes sentenced James on July 8 to one month of house arrest followed by two months of 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew for breach of public trust. James must also pay $1,886.72 restitution for the custom shirts and suit he illegally bought and a $200 victim fine charge.
“It’s a bit depressing, it’s a bit disquieting,” Plecas said in an interview. “And I can’t believe that the average British Columbian would look at this and say that this really fits the crime. At the same time, I do appreciate that the judge is taking into account all kinds of mitigating factors.”
Holmes found James guilty of fraud and breach of public trust on May 19, but sentenced him on the latter. She decided against jail time because James is a 71-year-old without a prior criminal record who cooperated with the investigation, lost his $347,090-a-year job, suffered anxiety, was the subject of scathing media attention and expressed remorse through his lawyers. He did not testify at the Jan. 24 to March 3 trial.
Despite that, Plecas worries what message is sent to deter public officials from pilfering the public purse. He also wonders what happens the next time a public official is found guilty of corruption.
“So if you say to somebody, look, you’re going to do this and if you get caught, number one, you’re not likely to go to jail, because here we have the most-senior official didn’t go to jail,” Plecas said. “It’s hard to imagine in future who is going to jail. This case will be used for future cases and courts will be reminded that here’s a case of somebody who didn’t go to jail.”
Plecas was the Speaker from 2017 to 2020 and MLA for Abbotsford South from 2013 to 2020. He is also a professor emeritus of criminology and criminal justice at the University of the Fraser Valley and former prison judge at Kent Institution. He acknowledged Canada’s tradition of seeking to rehabilitate offenders and that judges are reluctant to send someone to jail unless they believe the offender poses a high risk to the community.
“It’s always important once somebody receives their punishment, that we all, as a community and as a society, be as helpful as we can to somebody and, at the expiration of their sentence, welcome them back into the community. But that shouldn’t take away from consequences that should be included in the first instance.”
During his month-long house arrest, James is allowed a weekly visit to a grocery store and to attend Sunday mass. He can also leave his Saanich strata lot for medical appointments. Alan Mullen, Plecas’s former chief of staff, said the sentence does not send a strong message of deterrence or denunciation.
“We put a lot of work into this, we were sort of raked over the coals,” Mullen said. “And at the end of the day, no, I don’t think it does. Because, here you have an individual saying, well, thank-you very much, here’s $1,800 back, and I’ll stay home for a month, and I’ll go about my day.”
Could there be cause for civil consequences?
Holmes acquitted James on a breach of trust charge for receiving a $257,988 long-service bonus in 2012, but she called his role in the misspending a conflict of interest and said he was likely not entitled to the sum. In May 2019, former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, Beverley McLachlin, had a similar conclusion when she investigated James’s misconducts. McLachlin’s report to the all-party Legislative Assembly Management Committee (LAMC) triggered James’s sudden retirement, which did not affect his eligibility under the Public Service Pension Plan. He had originally claimed no wrongdoing and demanded his job back after the Nov. 18, 2020 suspension.
Plecas said the Legislature could have grounds to seek a civil judgment for repayment of the $257,988 bonus.
“So we have two very, very senior judges who have concluded that, in effect, he shouldn’t have got the money,” Plecas said. “At very least, there should be some exploration of having him pay that back. Just because it wasn’t criminal, doesn’t mean that he should keep it.”
Neither Ryan-Lloyd, recently hired executive financial officer Randall Smith nor Speaker Raj Chouhan responded for comment on July 11.
By email, Clerk Assistant Artour Sogomonian said: “I cannot speculate on any actions that the Legislative Assembly may or may not wish to take in the future.”
There is also the matter of James’s legal fees.
Sogomonian said no invoices have been received and no payments made.
The May 2021 indemnification policy provides legal assistance to current or former employees of the Legislative Assembly. A current or former employee loses eligibility for indemnification if a judgment is given against that person in a legal proceeding and must repay all amounts to the Legislative Assembly, unless the clerk determines indemnification is appropriate in whole or in part.
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