B.C. auditor says tighter expense rules, oversight needed at B.C. legislature

VICTORIA — British Columbia's auditor general says the province's legislature must set higher standards for expense reporting by top administrative officials following allegations of spending abuses made by Speaker Darryl Plecas.

Carol Bellringer said Thursday an audit found weaknesses and gaps in expense policies in the offices of the legislature's clerk, sergeant-at-arms and Speaker.

She said the audit focused on the expenses from April 1, 2016 to Dec. 31, 2018, reviewing more than 4,700 transactions totalling $2.2 million.  

"These expenses included staff travel, gifts and clothing," she said during a telephone news conference. "For example, we found that travel expenses were frequently made without clear documentation to support the purpose of that travel."

Bellringer said some expenses were made without appropriate approval or a business purpose.

"As the body that makes provincial laws, it is reasonable to expect that its own operations should be setting the bar for controlling, overseeing and ensuring the efficient and effective use of public resources in an organized fashioned," Bellringer said in her 34-page report.

In January, Plecas issued a report alleging spending misconduct by former clerk Craig James and sergeant-at-arms Gary Lenz. Both men have denied any wrongdoing.

"Probably the biggest surprise with the whole audit was just how often things were not getting approved," Bellringer said. "I know that sounds somewhat bureaucratic, but it's really uncommon in an organization for things to not just naturally go up the ladder."

She noted that members of the legislature must receive approval for out-of-province travel, including outlining the purpose of the trip and expected costs.

Bellringer's report details 14 out-of-province trips taken by the clerk with expenses totalling $108,656. None of those trips had received prior approval, the report said.

Bellringer's audit made nine recommendations including the establishment of a travel policy, a framework to govern financial practices and clear guidance on what work-related clothing would be paid for.

A response from the legislative assembly in the report says it "accepts all recommendations and looks forward to the Legislative Assembly Management Committee working with the Speaker and the acting clerk on their implementation."

Plecas, chairman of the all-party committee, wouldn't comment on the report but issued a statement following the release of the audit.

"The report illustrates that there was a failure of leadership and trust by senior non-elected leadership of the legislative assembly," the statement said. "Appropriate and effective policies were not established and policies that were in place were overridden or not applied."

Plecas said he was hoping for a forensic audit dating back to 2011, adding "more work is needed to address the remaining issues in my January 21 report."

He said the committee is on the right track as it works towards a new governance framework, more effective oversight of assembly administration and further reforms to administrative policies.

Liberal Mary Polak, a co-chairwoman of the committee, said she was satisfied with Bellringer's audit. She plans to ask Plecas at future committee meetings about his travel expenses, which Bellringer reported at $60,947 for 2018-2019, she said.

The legislature's management committee appointed Beverley McLachlin, former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, to investigate overspending allegations against James and Lenz last spring.

In a report released in May, McLachlin concluded James improperly claimed benefits and used legislature property for personal reasons.

New Democrat House Leader Mike Farnworth announced the same day that James had retired with a "non-financial" settlement.

James said in a statement after his departure was announced that he had "been publicly ridiculed and vilified."

He his family has been hurt by the accusations, he said.

"In an effort to put an end to that, I have decided to retire, and reach a settlement with the legislative assembly,'' his statement said.

McLachlin cleared Lenz of wrongdoing but he remains on paid administrative leave.

Lenz told a news conference after the report was released that he wanted to be reinstated but was told he was still the subject of a police investigation.

"I am confident there will be no findings of wrongdoing," he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Sept. 19, 2019.

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said the Speaker wanted a forensic audit dating back to 2001.