Former B.C. Legislature clerk found guilty of breach of trust, fraud

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Former B.C. legislative assembly clerk Craig James is pictured leaving B.C. Supreme Court during his trial for breach of trust and fraud. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
Former B.C. legislative assembly clerk Craig James is pictured leaving B.C. Supreme Court during his trial for breach of trust and fraud. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

A B.C. Supreme Court judge found the man described as the former "chief executive officer" of B.C.'s legislature guilty of breach of trust and fraud Thursday in connection with improper expense claims for more than $1,800 worth of clothing.

In a split verdict, Associate Chief Justice Heather Holmes acquitted former legislature house clerk Craig James of two other counts of breach of trust and one of fraud in relation to improperly claiming a $250,000 retirement benefit and storing a wood splitter purchased with public funds at his home.

The guilty verdicts concerned dress shirts and a tie purchased at Brooks Brothers in Vancouver and a suit bought from Ede & Ravenscroft in London in 2018.

Holmes said James took reimbursement for the clothing items by claiming they were intended for attire in the legislature chambers — "when he knew they were not."

James "breached the standard of conduct expected of him in his public position in a serious and marked way and he knew it would deprive the legislative assembly of funds he ought not to have been reimbursed," Holmes said as she delivered her verdict.

"His preference was a dishonest one, to benefit himself at the public's expense."

'He should have disengaged entirely'

James pleaded not guilty to using his position as clerk of the house to improperly access benefits ranging in scale from the quarter-million-dollar retirement payout to expense items including cufflinks and a Union Jack pillow embroidered with the words "God Save The Queen."

Dirk Meissner/Canadian Press
Dirk Meissner/Canadian Press

Prosecutors also accused James of spearheading a decision to use legislature funds to purchase a wood splitter and trailer that were kept at his Victoria home — allegations that spawned an avalanche of headlines.

In finding James not guilty of the counts related to the retirement payout, Holmes said that while he shouldn't have involved himself in the process that saw the money awarded, the Crown had not proven that his behaviour rose to the level of crime.

"The potential benefit to him personally was extremely large and he should have disengaged entirely and stepped away from any further involvement in the dealings relating to his own entitlement," she said.

"However, despite giving rise to the strong suspicion that Mr. James took advantage of opportune circumstances to serve his own interests rather than the public's, the evidence did not establish beyond a reasonable doubt [that James was guilty of breach of conduct]."

Wood splitter

The judge made a similar finding in relation to the allegations surrounding the wood splitter.

She said there was no evidence James "interfered with or overwhelmed" the decision-making process that resulted in the purchase of the item for use during a catastrophic emergency at the legislature. She said that at most, James made "light" personal use of the wood splitter.

"This would not have been a responsible use of legislative assembly property and it would not have shown the scrupulous regard for the public good that was required of Mr. James' position," Holmes said.

She concluded his use of the wood splitter would have amounted to a breach of employee standard of conduct, but did not represent the kind of "serious or marked departure" from that bar needed to prove him guilty of breach of trust.

Holmes said the Crown had also not proven fraud in relation to many of the more trivial items James purchased on overseas trips.

Hotly anticipated ruling

The decision was one of the most hotly anticipated rulings in B.C. politics in years.

James worked at the legislature from 1987 until his resignation in 2019, months after he was placed on administrative leave and led off the grounds by police under a cloud of suspicion.

Michael McArthur/CBC
Michael McArthur/CBC

As clerk of the house, he was both an adviser to the House Speaker and overseer of the 300 administrative employees who provide non-partisan support to the politicians tasked by voters to run the province.

During a trial that spanned two months, the Crown argued James had demonstrated a "marked departure from the standard of responsible management expected of a person occupying one of the highest offices in the province."

Witnesses included a former Speaker of the house and the woman who succeeded James in the job as clerk.

Kate Ryan-Lloyd voluntarily returned a retirement payout written out to her at the same time as James received a $257,988.38 benefit under a program prosecutors claimed had been long terminated.

In a letter to James entered into evidence, she wrote: "I continue to be uncomfortable with accepting such a sizeable payment as a long-service award."

'Bureaucratic ineptitude' not a crime

James did not testify in his own defence.

In their closing arguments, his lawyers claimed prosecutors had failed to provide any evidence of corruption, claiming that at worst, all the Crown had proven was that James might be guilty of "bureaucratic ineptitude" — which is not a crime.

They pointed a finger instead at former House Speaker Darryl Plecas, who defence lawyer Gavin Cameron accused of going on a "crusade" to find wrongdoing.

"Mr. Plecas wrote a highly publicized report containing inflammatory and demonstrably false allegations," Cameron said.

"The evidence showed that reasonable and legitimate people acting within reasonable administrative frameworks considered the matters carried on in the open by Mr. James and never once suggested there was fraud or crime."

The defence argued James didn't stand to benefit from the purchase of the wood splitter and only decided to keep it at home because there was no room at the legislature.

They said he was transparent with each of his claims for items challenged by the Crown, pointing out that all his expenses were overseen by multiple individuals who raised only "a handful of questions" over half a decade and never lodged a complaint.

Crown counsel Brock Martland said the defence's arguments about collective bureaucratic ineptitude, which cast the blame on others, do not take James's position at the legislature into account.

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