British Columbia·Analysis

B.C.'s political staffers remain under the microscope

B.C. politicians are facing questions around the behaviour of political staff and whether training and accountability should be bolstered.

Allegations of stealing money and admissions of lying under oath have political staffers on hot seat

Former political aide George Gretes (left) resigned from Transportation Minister Todd Stone's office following allegations of deleting emails requested through freedom of information. (CBC News)

Trust is a complicated thing in politics. 

Voters support politicians because they trust they will do the right thing. Politicians then put trust in their staff to help fulfil their obligation to the public.

But from time to time, that trust will inevitably be tested.

And as was demonstrated this week with allegations of criminal activity against two background figures in the life of B.C. politics — the province needs strong rules to govern the behaviour of political staff.

Marni Offman and George Gretes may be names largely unknown to the public.

Offman is charged with committing a fraud over $5,000 while working as a constituency assistant in Victoria-Swan Lake MLA Rob Fleming's office. 

Former constituency office assistant Marni Offman leaves provincial court in Victoria on July 13. (Richard Zussman/CBC News)

And Gretes pleaded guilty to lying to B.C.'s information and privacy commissioner during her probe into the practice of triple deleting emails in the office where he worked as a political aide to Transportation Minister Todd Stone.

Both are accused of breaking the sacred trust of the public in very different ways. But observers say the end result is an erosion of confidence in the political system itself. And that wasn't exactly at an all time high to begin with.

After news of the charges against Offman emerged, Fleming said he was shocked.

"It's gut wrenching to uncover something like the alleged fraud [that] happened by someone who I worked closely with, who had my trust and confidence," he said. soon after Offman was charged.

Professionalization of politics

MLA's are given $119,000 a year to run their offices with very few checks and balances. Fleming is not being investigated for any wrongdoing, but the MLA is — ultimately — responsible for his own office's budget.

There has been progress made recently into overseeing expense accounts of political staffers, including quarterly public reports. MLA offices are also required to use a computerized accounting package to manage office finances.

Changes could provide better accountability of the way public funds are spent. Right now, MLA offices receive a lump sum cheque once a month and the MLA or staff can spend the money with minimum approval. Any extra cash left over at the end of the month is up to the office to spend.

Former B.C. Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham initiated an investigation into the triple delete culture in Victoria. (CBC)

That flexibility could be quickly taken away and replaced with a more formalized budgeting process that would not be overseen by individual MLA offices, but rather by the legislature as a whole. Members of the legislative assembly could also decide that all their own expenses from constituency work would be filed into the public record.

UBC political science professor Max Cameron says the damage of such allegations goes beyond the facts of the cases themselves.

"We have a very low level of professionalization of politics in our country," said Max Cameron. "It's also important to look at the trust people put into politicians, and that trust can be eroded if those politicians are not holding themselves to the highest level of ethical conduct." 

Staff behaving badly 

In a week that was particularly bad for political staff allegedly behaving badly, Gretes finally had his day in court. The 28 year-old has been under intense media scrutiny since he was first investigated over a year ago.

Gretes' didn't steal, but he did provide an outlet for anger towards what is being called an overly partisan culture within the halls of power in Victoria. Gretes' lawyer, Chris Considine, acknowledged in court that Gretes had learned the process of triple deleting emails from a more senior staff member.

But Gretes' admission to lying under oath while being questioned by officials from the privacy commissioner's office also opens up the issue of maturity. Often staff are under the age of 30 and are handed significant jobs working directly with politicians without sufficient training or experience.

"This a very young man with no prior criminal history whatsoever. He has never been before the courts before," said Considine outside of the court room on Thursday.

"Triple deleting was not something that was improper at that time. It was not something that was barred by government. It is basically a very inexperienced young man who was trying to help someone else out."

Significant deterrent? 

Cameron says just because a political aide has an important job, it doesn't mean they will always do the right thing.

There has been criticism that the $2,500 fine Gretes now must pay was not enough of a deterrent to stop future staffers from breaking the rules. But a more reasonable solution than raising the fines would be to increase training and make it more challenging to get ministerial office jobs.

Right now, the legislature hallways are filled with recent graduates whose best experience comes from partisan work on the campaign trail. There is no rigorous application process for the positions as in the public service.

A change in that regard would increase the likelihood of people making decisions in the best interest of British Columbians and not just their bosses who share the same political stripes.

"Just because you are partisan doesn't mean you can't have a high level of professionalism in your conduct. It doesn't mean you can't understand conflict of interest guidelines and other ethical guidelines," said Cameron.

But whether there is any political will to make these changes and take the partisanship out of political staff jobs, is, in the end, up to the MLAs themselves.


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