The former speaker of the B.C. legislative assembly said he was relieved when a judge convicted the former clerk after a B.C. Supreme Court corruption trial, but worries that the seat of government could be prone to another scandal.
“We have full respect for that process; we have full respect for the judge’s decision. It’s not for us to decide whether or not he was guilty,” Darryl Plecas, the independent speaker from 2017 to 2020, said in an exclusive interview.
“People ask us, you know, how we feel about it. Well, in one sense, of course, we’re somewhat relieved. It’s not so much that we personally cared whether or not he was found guilty, but it was the way the response was all along the way.”
Associate Chief Justice Heather Holmes found Craig James guilty on May 19 of fraud and breach of trust by a public official for spending almost $1,900 of taxpayers’ money on high-end dress shirts and a suit for himself. She ruled the special prosecutors did not prove three other charges beyond reasonable doubt. The fraud conviction was conditionally stayed, due to court rules against conviction more than once on the same facts from the same criminal act.
Holmes has scheduled a July 4 sentencing hearing.
The verdict prompted Premier John Horgan to call it a blow to anyone who cares about the legislature.
“I’m grateful that a very sad chapter in this institution's history has now been put to rest. It was a difficult time for the people who work here,” Horgan told reporters on May 19.
Alan Mullen, who was Plecas’s chief of staff, disagreed with Horgan.
“I say it doesn't close anything,” Mullen said. “It does not close until these policies and procedures are in place. That place should be a glass house, where everybody can look in and say that’s our house, we know what’s going on.”
Plecas said he is happy that a myriad of policy changes flowed from the scandal, which erupted in late 2018 when James and Sergeant-at-Arms Gary Lenz were suspended. But the NDP government has not followed through on early 2019 promises to implement freedom of information and whistleblower protection at the legislature.
“These policies are in place all over the world, but for some reason, they haven’t seen fit to have them in place for legislative employees,” Plecas said.
Without whistleblower protection, insiders may think twice about reporting wrongdoing.
“We got dragged through the mud, politically, professionally, personally,” Mullen said. “Unless a lot of things change, I don’t blame people for not coming forward for not putting their hand in the air and saying, ‘Hey, there’s something wrong here.’ They're terrified.”
Plecas and Mullen endured personal attacks from then-BC Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson and some members of the press gallery who defended James and Lenz.
Lenz turned a blind eye to James’s actions. He was eventually found in violation of the Police Act for lying, but retired before he could face discipline. The Auditor General, Carol Bellringer, did not deliver a promised forensic audit, but instead turned her attention to the speaker’s office. The previous auditor general, John Doyle, delivered a scathing 2012 report on mismanagement under James, but the Legislative Assembly Management Committee fell short of its oversight duties for years until Plecas arrived in the job.
Holmes ruled that James was not criminally guilty for receiving and keeping a $258,000 retirement allowance, though she said he was in conflict of interest and likely not entitled to the sum. Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin called it a misconduct in her May 2019 report that sparked James’s sudden retirement. House leaders for the legislature’s three parties let James go without requiring repayment. They even agreed to his demand that no one be allowed to speak ill of him publicly.
“You know, what about that money?” Plecas said. “Why isn't there some inquiry as to whether or not … he should receive it or should it be paid back?”
Questions remain about James’s legal bills. Has Fasken, the law firm representing him, invoiced the legislature? Will James be forced to pay any of it back? The legislature’s financial chief Hilary Woodward and Clerk Kate Ryan-Lloyd have not responded for comment. Fasken did not appear in the list of suppliers of $25,000 or more in the legislature’s annual report through March 31, 2021.
Plecas said he was only doing his job and not seeking any accolades for investigating corruption when he found it and calling in the RCMP.
One thing does surprise him.
“Not one of those people at the legislature, not one, not one elected official has come forward and said, you know, ‘Thank you for doing what you did.’ Not even close. Well, you know, some people would say, ‘OK, I might not have agreed with everything you did or how you did it.’ But that never would have happened, unless Alan and I did what we did.”