The top official at B.C.'s regulator for the car sales industry has acknowledged he was working under the false impression that his deputy was a practising lawyer and only learned the truth because of a lawsuit.
That admission from Ian Christman, registrar at the Vehicle Sales Authority (VSA), is in direct opposition to claims from the VSA's former chief operating officer and deputy registrar Loraine Lee.
Lee is the subject of a petition from the Law Society of B.C., which alleges she misled her employer into believing she was a lawyer and provided legal services even though she hasn't been licensed since 1987.
In her response, Lee claimed the VSA had hired her with full knowledge she is not a practising lawyer and argued her role with the agency was managerial, not legal.
Christman addressed the situation last week in a decision to recuse himself from hearing a case in which Lee had prepared legal arguments for the VSA.
"It was my understanding at the time of Loraine Lee's hiring that she was a practising lawyer and a member of the Law Society of British Columbia who would be providing legal services to the authority, among other duties," Christman wrote in the Sept. 8 decision.
"This was my understanding until I became aware of the law society's allegation that Loraine Lee was providing legal services while not licensed as a lawyer."
Christman, who is a licensed lawyer, was director of human resources for the VSA at the time Lee was hired in 2019.
CBC News asked Christman whether Lee claimed to be a lawyer when she was hired and, if so, why her credentials weren't double-checked. In an emailed response, the VSA's interim president and CEO Jim Nicholson said it would be inappropriate to comment while the law society's petition is before the courts.
The VSA oversees the sale of cars and trucks for personal use in B.C., licensing dealerships and salespeople, handling complaints and issuing penalties to dealers who break the law.
The law society's petition stems from information provided by a member of the public who began looking into the agency's leadership after becoming concerned about how it dealt with his complaint against a car dealer who is also a member of the VSA board.
Lee left her role with the VSA in July, about two months after the petition was filed, as did former president and CEO Stephen Simms.
'A reasonable apprehension of bias'
The heart of the issue in Christman's Sept. 8 decision is an affidavit Lee filed in response to the law society's allegations.
Lee wrote that she'd never pretended to be a lawyer and had always worked under Christman's supervision at the VSA.
That claim raised eyebrows for some Metro Vancouver dealerships that are currently the subject of a case being heard by the VSA, according to Christman's decision.
While Lee had filed legal arguments on behalf of the VSA in that case, Christman, as the registrar, was set to decide the matter.
If Christman was supervising Lee, then he was essentially responsible for the legal arguments against the dealerships, they argued. If that were the case, he could hardly be considered an unbiased judge of the facts.
Christman wrote in his decision that he "at no time" supervised Lee's preparation or writing of legal arguments in this case or another where she acted as counsel for the VSA.
But he went on to say that a reasonable observer could just as likely believe Lee's version of events as his own.
"A reasonable apprehension of bias could arise under the unique circumstances of this case," Christman said, writing that he had no choice but to recuse himself.
He declared a mishearing and referred an application to dismiss the case to another adjudicator.
The law society's petition against Lee is currently set to be heard in B.C. Supreme Court on Oct. 7 and 8.
Meanwhile, the VSA has also hired a new manager of investigations.
Alan Mullen was previously in the news for his role in a scandal at the B.C. Legislature. He served as chief of staff for former speaker Darryl Plecas, and together the pair conducted a months-long secret investigation into alleged inappropriate spending by two senior staffers.
Nicholson, the VSA's interim president, confirmed the hire and said Mullen "responded to our job advertisement and was selected through our usual hiring process."