British Columbia

Former B.C. Legislature clerk of the house pleads not guilty as breach of trust trial begins

One of the most hotly anticipated trials in recent B.C. political history kicked off Monday in B.C. Supreme Court as a man described as the former "chief executive officer" of the province's legislature pleaded not guilty to breach of trust.

Prosecutors claim Craig James abused position to gain access to retirement funds and a wood splitter

Clerk of the Legislative Assembly Craig James speaks to the media in Vancouver on Nov. 26, 2018. James trial for breach of trust began Monday morning in B.C. Supreme Court. (Ben Nelms/Canadian Press)

One of the most hotly anticipated trials in recent B.C. political history kicked off Monday in B.C. Supreme Court as a man described as the former "chief executive officer" of the province's legislature pleaded not guilty to breach of trust.

Craig James is accused of using his position as clerk of the house to improperly access benefits ranging in scale from a quarter-million dollar retirement payout to expense items including cufflinks and a Union Jack pillow embroidered with the words "God Save The Queen."

He's also alleged to have spearheaded a decision to use legislature funds to purchase a wood splitter and trailer that was kept at his home.

The Crown's opening statement included a reference to the standards of conduct expected of all employees of B.C.'s Legislative Assembly — rules that forbid any conflict between professional duties and personal interests.

"Mr James was no ordinary employee. As the parliamentary equivalent of a CEO, he had a responsibility to the institution and the people of British Columbia to manage the affairs and resources of the legislature in an exemplary manner," said prosecutor David Butcher.

"The Crown alleged that Mr. James' conduct, at different times and in different ways, was a marked departure from the standard of responsible management expected of a person occupying one of the highest offices in the province."

'The clerk wears two hats'

The trial is being held in Vancouver, instead of Victoria — home to the legislature where James worked from 1987 until his resignation in 2019, months after he was placed on administrative leave and led off the grounds by police under a cloud of suspicion.

James uttered the words "not guilty" five times Monday morning as a court clerk read aloud the specifics of three charges of breach of trust and two charges of fraud.

Clerk of the House Craig James, centre, is escorted out of the legislature after he and B.C.'s Sergeant-at-Arms Gary Lenz were placed on leave. James is on trial in Vancouver for breach of trust. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

Butcher then went on to explain the workings of government that saw James act as both an adviser to the house speaker and overseer of the 300 administrative employees who provide non-partisan support to the politicians tasked by voters to run the province.

James began his career at the legislative assembly as a clerk of committee — stepping into the top role as clerk of the house on Sept. 1, 2011.

In that role, he reported to the house Speaker but was also expected to act entirely independently from government to manage and direct the assembly's administrative policies and resources. 

"The clerk wears two hats: they are an adviser and a manager who assists the members of the assembly to carry on their business of considering, developing and promulgating laws and policies; however they're also the chief executive officer of the assembly administration," Butcher said.

"As the assembly is funded entirely and exclusively with public funds, the requirement of responsible financial stewardship is an an important component of the clerk's CEO position."

'It would have been utterly useless'

The six-week trial will be conducted by Associate Chief Justice Heather Holmes — the same judge who recently concluded extradition proceedings against Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou.

Butcher gave a brief outline of the charges against James — starting with the allegation that he improperly advanced a claim for a $257,988.38 retirement allowance in February 2012.

A photograph of a Union Jack pillow entered into evidence as one of the exhibits at a breach of trust trial for Craig James, the former house clerk of the B.C. Legislative Assembly. The cushion was purchased in December 2017 at Windsor Castle. (B.C. Supreme Court)

Previous investigations into the accusations have established that the payment was made according to a retirement benefit program that existed from 1984 to 1987, when it was terminated.

James' successor, Kate Ryan-Lloyd, is expected to testify about a $118,916 retirement payment issued to her at the same time — a lump sum she voluntarily returned immediately.

Butcher said other witnesses would testify about James' interest in the wood splitter, envisioned as a tool for catastrophic emergencies, in case it was needed to clear debris or cut wood for fires to stay warm.

James allegedly collected the wood splitter himself from a supplier in Sidney, before driving to Aldergrove to pick up a trailer in the fall of 2017.

"Mr. James took both pieces of equipment to his house in suburban Victoria, which is 13.4 kilometres from the legislature," Butcher said.

"It would have been utterly useless in an emergency while stored at his residence."

The prosecutor also read from one email in which James allegedly called the machine a "beauty" and another in which he allegedly told the former house sergeant-at-arms: "Picked up the woodsplitter. May try it tomorrow. You will love it."

Butcher said the third area of alleged breach of trust would concern the expenses James allegedly submitted for travel and items related to personal use. 

The first witness is scheduled to be a police exhibits officer expected to testify about items seized by RCMP along with those returned by James' wife to the legislature.

Butcher said the exhibits include books about the monarchy, beekeeping and whiskey. They also include sets of stamps and coins commemorating the British Royals as well as cufflinks and the Union Jack pillow.

A 'serious and marked' departure?

A total of 27 witnesses are expected to take the stand by the end of the proceedings. The defence will make its opening statement after the Crown closes its case.

A wood splitter, retrieved from Craig James's home by RCMP, is shown at the legislature in Victoria on Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019. James is accused of breach of trust and fraud. (Dirk Meissner/Canadian Press)

Butcher said the Crown needs to prove five points essential to making a charge of breach of trust stick against a a public official.

The first two elements are not really in question: that the accused is a public official and that they acted in accordance with the duties of their office.

The trial will centre on the other three elements: an accused has to have breached conduct demanded by the nature of their office; the conduct has to represent a "serious and marked" departure from behaviour expected of someone in that position, and they have to have acted with the intention of using public office for something other than doing public good. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jason Proctor

@proctor_jason

Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and the justice system extensively.

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