British Columbia could move to the forefront of Canadian legislature accountability if Premier John Horgan follows through with a pledge to reform access to information laws.
Horgan said Thursday the Freedom of Information and Privacy Protection Act (FOIPPA) should be amended to lift the veil of secrecy around legislature spending. That would include adding public scrutiny for senior legislative officers such as the two currently facing allegations of excessive spending on foreign travel, clothes, expensive trinkets, hats, cufflinks, watches, lavish hotels and a wood splitter.
“The public has a right to know how long this has been going on and how it can be fixed,” Horgan said.
“Where I spend money should be available to my neighbour,” the premier said.
Asked if “everything here at the Legislature should be FOI-able, should be transparent,”Horgan responded, “Yes. With the exception of a few things. Making a blanket statement of yes, we need to make sure that when it comes to expenditures, when it comes to public money, it must be transparent.”
The percolating scandal centres around Speaker of the House Darryl Plecas’ report Monday outlining alleged excessive spending by Clerk of the Legislature Craig James and Sergeant-at-Arms Gary Lenz.
Both are suspended with pay as police and other investigations continue.
In moving to amend FOIPPA, Horgan said he would be meeting with Attorney General David Eby Thursday afternoon to carve out protections for whistleblowers to keep them safe when revealing concerns about government.
“These individuals coming to talk to the Legislature could be at risk,” he said. Indeed, part of Plecas’s report involved information from a whistleblower, later identified as Connor Gibson, a former legislative assistant for deputy speaker Linda Reid.
FOIPPA currently does not define the legislature as a public body, thereby exempting it from freedom of information requests from the public. Few legislatures in Canada or elsewhere have such openness.
“I see an opportunity,” Horgan said.
Wilkinson said changes to FOIPPA would be welcome but not as effective as posting expenses immediately.
And, any changes have support from B.C.’s Freedom of Information and Privacy Association (FIPA), which said the lack of public scrutiny without FOIPPA coverage is a shortcoming of government transparency and accountability.
“We would have learned of this sooner had we been able to place legislature offices under scrutiny,” said FIPA executive director Sara Neuert.
She said the NPD government has made commitments to FOIPPA reform but none has arrived. She said change could be made quickly and make the government more accountable by the taxpaying public.
“Clean house right now”
Horgan’s commitments came minutes after Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson called for an end to political squabbling over the scandal and for action from the NDP government to restore faith in the assembly and its employees.
“The goal is to clean house right now,” Wilkinson said, adding anyone not interested in honest public service, “should find another line of work.”
Characterizing the allegations as “gross excessive spending,” Wilkinson called on Horgan to act on three things: posting of all legislature-related expense online, a ban on foreign travel unless approved by the legislature’s management committee and a complete review of spending by Auditor General Carol Bellringer.
“People have a right to be offended about this,” Wilkinson said.
“The public trust in this institution is critical.”
He said if “political sniping” about “a squalid world of petty accounting problems” rather than concrete action continues, “we‘re going to look like a pack of idiots.”
But Horgan rejected Wilkinson’s calls for non-partisanship after the latter’s November attacks on Plecas, who left the Liberal caucus and sat as an independent MLA before becoming speaker.
Wilkinson had slammed Plecas at the time for “building his own little empire” and running rogue investigations into two senior legislative officers.
“There's a grave concern that the speaker is out of control. We need to be concerned that he's building his own little empire, staffed with expensive lawyers, with investigators with no credentials, and he's being allowed to get away with it,” Wilkinson said.
Horgan said it was Plecas’ independence that allowed the allegations against James and Lenz to come forward.
“The independence of the Speaker’s office may well be the best thing that’s happened in the last 18 months,” Horgan said.
Questions still remain about the spending habits of Deputy Speaker Linda Reid, Plecas’ predecessor.
She has been accused by a former assistant of silencing concerns that she improperly filed meal and transportation expense claims. Reid said on Wednesday the assistant never raised concerns. The accusations are outlined in Plecas’ report, which notes James attempted to suppress an investigation into the expense claims, fearing that “we will wear it all,” should it come out. Reid said she “didn’t know” what James could have meant by that.
Some of Reid’s spending habits as speaker were scrutinized publicly. For instance, in 2013, she paid back a $5,500 expense claim for her husband to travel with her to a business conference in Africa – but only after it was revealed by media. She also cancelled a $16,200 annual travel bill to have her campaign manager-turned-assistant remain in Richmond, only after it became publicly known.
Expenses on an MLA snack lounge – the so-called Muffingate scandal - and security upgrades to her constituency office also came under fire.
Reid said she was likely the “most transparent Speaker” in B.C. history, having brought previously closed-door legislature committee meetings into the public realm. But she conceded little changed under her watch to bring any checks and balances and oversight of the clerk’s personal spending – which was approved by the committee only via broader legislature budgets.
Asked about Reid Thursday, Wilkinson never mentioned her name but said any inappropriate payment should be paid back.
Horgan said he had earlier given Reid a pass on scrutiny, as she became speaker in 2013.
“I got a lot of ridicule for defending Linda Reid over Muffingate,” Horgan said, calling the situation “an isolated moment in time.”
- With files from Graeme Wood