British Columbia

Former clerk of house Craig James charged in connection with B.C. Legislature spending scandal

Former clerk of the house Craig James has been criminally charged in connection with a spending scandal at the B.C. Legislature, Crown prosecutors have announced.

James facing 4 counts of breach of trust by a public officer, 2 counts of fraud over $5,000

Craig James makes a statement to the media in Vancouver on Nov. 26, 2018. Prosecutors on Friday announced six criminal charges against James, 69, in connection with a spending scandal at the B.C. Legislature, at which James was once house clerk. (Ben Nelms/Canadian Press)

Former clerk of the house Craig James has been criminally charged in connection with a spending scandal at the B.C. Legislature, Crown prosecutors announced Friday.

James, who was once one of the top legislative officials in the province, made his first appearance in court on Friday in Victoria. He was released on bail.

James, 69, is facing four counts of breach of trust by a public officer and two counts of fraud over $5,000, according to the B.C. Prosecution Service. The charges were sworn on Thursday. 

James's lawyer, Gavin Cameron, said it would not be proper to comment on the charges while they are before the courts.

It's the latest development in one of B.C.'s most bizarre parliamentary controversies, centred on two senior officials accused of misspending taxpayer dollars on outrageous personal expenses.

The scandal began when James and Gary Lenz, the legislature's sergeant-at-arms, were suspended and escorted out of the legislature under the shadow of a criminal investigation with little to no public explanation on Nov. 20, 2018.

Former speaker of the house Darryl Plecas laid out the accusations against James and Lenz in a bombshell report two months later. 

Plecas had been quietly compiling his report for months, the final product accusing Lenz and James of spending taxpayer dollars on inappropriate vacations, personal purchases and padded retirement benefits.

The three house leaders in the legislature commissioned an investigative report of their own in response to Plecas's allegations.

That report — separate from Plecas's report and the criminal investigation that led to the charges against James on Thursday — found later that spring multiple cases of misconduct committed by James, including buying expensive suits and luggage for personal trips to the United Kingdom, personally using a wood splitter that had been bought for the legislature, and taking a large amount of alcohol out of the legislature and delivering it to former speaker Bill Barisoff's house.

Craig James, right, and Gary Lenz make a statement to media in Vancouver on Nov. 26, 2018, after they were suspended from their jobs at the B.C. Legislature. (Ben Nelms/Canadian Press)

James retired on May 13, 2019, after the investigative report was made public. At the time, he said he had retired because he and his family had been been humiliated, "ridiculed and vilified" by the controversy.

'Incredibly serious' charges

Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau described the charges as "incredibly serious."

"The most important thing is that we have to create the conditions so that this can never happen again," she told CBC.

"With any government institution it should be actually quite relentless to be continually, proactively more accountable and transparent. Unfortunately the trend often is the other way."

The interim leader of the B.C. Liberal Party, Shirley Bond, said the caucus would not be commenting on the charges as the case is before the courts. 

NDP House leader Mike Farnworth also declined to comment on the charges, but said there have been "significant changes in relation to the clerk's office and the speaker's office in terms of transparency" since James was suspended.

That includes public disclosure of expenses, similar to what's required of MLAs.

The investigative report, written by former Supreme Court chief justice Beverley McLachlin, found no evidence of wrongdoing on Lenz's part.

But yet another report, this one investigating Lenz's role as police constable, later found Lenz lied in his statements to McLachlin as she was running her investigation. Lenz denied, saying he had told the truth.

Lenz remained on administrative leave until his own retirement on Oct. 1, 2019, which he attributed to his belief his reputation would never be "fully repaired."

With files from Tanya Fletcher