Between reports, rebuttals and counter-rebuttals, it’s difficult to know what’s really happening in the legislature spending scandal
Once again, reporters lined the halls of the legislature outside the committee room Thursday, as members of the Legislative Assembly Management Committee (LAMC) met in-camera – in other words, privately.
They were reviewing Speaker Darryl Plecas’ latest report – a point-by-point rebuttal to the rebuttal of his original report, made by suspended officials Craig James and Gary Lenz.
When reporters were allowed back in, the committee passed a series of unanimous motions, saying an “eminent jurist” would be brought in to determine whether James and Lenz had “engaged in misconduct,” presumably as a step towards terminating their employment. (They’re currently suspended with pay.)
More importantly, they moved to release the Speaker’s report on the responses from James and Lenz – good thing, too, as CTV News ran a story with an apparently leaked copy shortly before it was public on LAMC’s website. That might have gotten awkward.
Total in-camera time: Two hours, 24 minutes.
Total public time: Four minutes.
As many observers –including Plecas and his chief of staff/investigator Alan Mullen – have pointed out, there’s legitimate cause for concern. There’s no getting around two special prosecutors and RCMP investigation.
Both Plecas’ original report and followup report contain items that are, at best, difficult to explain. These range from the truly alarming (a “retirement payout” of $257,000) to moderately exasperating (ridiculously expensive luggage nobody can find) to trifling.
This latter category includes digressions into what Gary Lenz’s wife had (or didn’t have) for dinner one particular night, and one bizarre passage condemning Lenz for (allegedly) drinking coffee and chatting too much – an accusation true of many office workers, and not usually evidence cited in a semi-official investigation.
But even if there’s enough smoke to cry fire – much about this entire situation only gets stranger with more explanation.
Here are three examples.
First, one of the few points where Plecas and James agree is that many of the expenses in question were approved by Plecas himself.
Plecas says he signed off because he trusted James, and was told these things were normal. He believes this absolves him of any ickiness for approving what he now presents as manifestly and self-evidently nefarious.
Fine; he suppressed his suspicion, and trusted things were on the up and up. Understandable. But Plecas says Lenz also raised concerns about some of James’ expenses, and went along with it for essentially the same reason.
Usually, when one discovers wrongdoing – or the appearance of it – their responsibility ends with reporting it to their superior. Everyone agrees Lenz did that – and yet, he was marched out of the legislature along with James.
Second, in the rebuttal to the rebuttal (rebuttal redux?) Plecas calls some of James’ assertions “lies.”
“Lie” is an extremely loaded word at the best of times; with lawyers already involved, it’s spectacularly unadvisable. Much safer to couch slightly, to “It is not correct to say,” or “this is not true,” or “I simply don’t believe” – three real examples Plecas (also) used in the same report.
Asked about that, Mullen said the report was reviewed “over and over again,” including by legal counsel.
In November, the Speaker’s Office brought in former attorney general Wally Oppal as a legal adviser, with much fanfare. It’s not clear if he’s still advising Plecas, but nothing indicates he has left.
Would a former attorney general really sign off on a report worded so recklessly? It defies belief.
Third, on Friday, Mullen met with media to clarify some confusion – Plecas said he was “recusing” himself, but it wasn’t clear what specifically he was recusing himself from. He happened to mention Plecas’ books on leadership.
Coincidentally, that morning, the Abbotsford News ran a four-page advertising feature, paid by taxpayers through Plecas’ constituency office. It included an advertisement for two of Plecas’ books for sale on Amazon.
I debated whether it was worth bringing up with Mullen – but when he specifically mentioned the books, it seemed pertinent.
Obviously, MLAs aren’t supposed to use constituency advertising for personal gain – but no problem: Mullen says the books are free.
Problem: they do not appear to be free, at least not on Amazon.
The newspaper ad – which was also mailed to many of Plecas’ constituents – said proceeds of one book would go to the City of Surrey, but again, that’s not clear on Amazon.
Is it a big deal? Maybe not. And it may well be an honest mistake or oversight. But if Plecas is going to dispute what Mrs. Lenz had one dinner a few years ago, he should make sure he’s meeting the same standard.
Maclean Kay is Editor-in-Chief of The Orca