A unique day in the legislature - The Orca

A unique day in the legislature

Maclean Kay

What a history-making day looks like in real time

The word “unique” is overused. But Tuesday, November 20, was unique.

After a unanimous motion in the house, Clerk Craig James and Sergeant-at-Arms Gary Lenz – the two most senior staff members in the Legislative Assembly – were placed on immediate administrative leave (with pay), and escorted by police out of the building.

Here’s what the day felt like in real time.

Normally, after Question Period wraps up, the chamber empties fairly quickly; only a small percentage remain for the next item of house business, usually continued debate on one of the NDP government’s many (many, many) bills.

On Tuesday, with only one or two exceptions, everyone remained seating. The handful who did get up hovered around the exits, but it appeared nobody left.

Sitting in the press gallery seats, it was obvious something unusual was happening. The three respective party leaders were completely silent, each looking distinctly uncomfortable.

From the press gallery, we’re easily visible to most of the MLAs; it’s not unusual to exchange furtive glances, smiles, waves, winks, and shrugs. As the silence continued, two of my colleagues and I sat in confusion, catching the eye of several MLAs, and asking (silently) what was up.

Several MLAs, both BC Liberal and NDP (the Greens are on the far side from the gallery) silently mouthed and/or gestured “stay” and “wait” to us.

NDP House Leader Mike Farnworth rose to call continued debate on a bill, which prompted even more urgent “just stay, it’s coming” gestures.

Oddly, Environment Minister George Heyman even got around to introducing the ministry staff who would be joining him for bill debate – before Farnworth rose again.

This time, it was different.

Visibly upset – his hands shaking – Farnworth read the following:

By leave, I move:

That Mr. Craig James, Clerk of the Legislative Assembly, and Mr. Gary Lenz, Sergeant at Arms, are placed on administrative leave with pay and benefits, effective immediately.

During the period of administrative leave, and as a consequence of an outstanding investigation, Mr. James and Mr. Lenz must not access Legislative Assembly network equipment, systems or services and must not be present within any building that is part of the “Legislative Precinct” as defined in section 1 of the Legislative Assembly Management Committee Act, R.S.B.C. 1996, c. 258.

This resolution is subject to periodic review and modification by the Legislative Assembly.

From there, it was pandemonium.

Media rushed to the hallway behind the chamber to speak to someone – anyone – who could shed more light. NDP and BC Liberal communications staff, always in the halls after QP wraps, were just as dumbfounded – even Premier John Horgan’s staff were in the dark.

The first person to speak was Farnworth. Again looking shaken and circumspect, he reiterated the statement, referred media to Hansard, and politely refused any further comment.

Shortly after Farnworth spoke to media, Craig James emerged from the Clerk’s Office, accompanied by unfamiliar faces, whom we would later learn were Special Advisor to the Speaker Alan Mullen, and a plainclothes Victoria Police Department officer, respectively.

For nearly ten minutes, James answered questions, his cycling wear draped over his arm. Famously even-keeled, he was obviously upset, but collected.

He told us he had no idea what might have prompted this. He and Lenz were called into Speaker Darryl Plecas’ office immediately after Question Period, who told them what was happening, and then watched the motion unfold.

He said he had taken his bike to work – hence the cycling gear – but didn’t feel much like cycling home (understandable) and would be getting a ride, oddly, with Lenz.

Asked if this was unprecedented, James went into the in-depth historical detail he’s known for, referencing the Colin Thatcher case in Saskatchewan – James worked in Regina’s legislative assembly at the time – and an obscure case in Western Australia before he was cut off.

As James left, escorted by two men we would later learn were plainclothes Victoria Police Department officers, there on invitation from the Speaker; VPD normally have no jurisdiction on legislature grounds.

A few MLAs started to make their way through the hallways, most of them studiously avoiding eye contact, much less comment.

Around this point – approximately 11:45 am – media were told Plecas would speak outside his office at 12:15. That didn’t happen; instead, Plecas sent out a complete stranger.

He turned out to be Alan Mullen, who Plecas hired as special advisor shortly after becoming Speaker last year.

Mullen (who speaks with a pronounced Irish accent) confirmed there was a criminal investigation underway, conducted by the RCMP, who had requested a special prosecutor. (Which we later learned was in fact two special prosecutors, because of the “potential size and scope of the investigation.”)

“If I can be frank, it’s disturbing. It’s disruptive,” said Mullen.

Other than that, Mullen could provide no details, other than one vital hint: the investigation was directly related to the two men’s “administrative duties.”

Behind the scenes, Horgan’s staff worked to postpone a public event outside the legislature. Speaking later, Horgan said he was shocked, but didn’t know any further details.

Later in the day, more facts emerged, mostly from statements from the RCMP and BC Prosecution Service; the request was made September 28, and the two prosecutors were appointed – and presumably have been working since – October 1.

What’s next? As Vaughn Palmer notes, we shouldn’t expect much clarification – or haste – from the RCMP. MLAs and staff on all sides have been told to say nothing; not only is there an active criminal investigation, but even the merest hint of political interference could be disastrous.

That said, the legislature is a small place. There are people who know more. If history is any judge, unofficial details and unsubstantiated rumours will trickle out, slowly and inexorably, over the next few weeks.

Maclean Kay is Editor-in-Chief of The Orca