British Columbia

Reform of B.C. legislature's finances underway

The all-party committee that oversees the $63-million annual budget of the B.C. legislature met publicly for the first time ever on Tuesday, following a scathing report that its financial record keeping has been a miserable failure.

Contracts and travel expenses of former and present clerks raise questions

The B.C. legislature assembly management committee met publicly for the first time on Tuesday. (Stephen Smart/CBC)

The all-party committee that oversees the $63-million annual budget of the B.C. legislature met publicly for the first time ever on Tuesday, following a scathing report that its financial record keeping has been a miserable failure.

The legislative assembly management committee came under fire last month after the province's auditor general concluded it was failing to keep even the most basic accounting records of legislative spending, including the expenses of all the province's MLAs.

The committee was first established in 1992 to overseeing millions in public spending linked to the running of the legislature, but it's been nearly five years since it's even published an annual report.

Now the committee is trying to make some major changes, which began with its first meeting in public.

The committee will meet again at the end of September with Auditor General John Doyle to go over an action plan for dealing with his concerns about a lack of financial oversight.

It will also soon receive a full report into ongoing spending at the legislature, construction projects, security spending and other operating expenses.

The committee will also be getting an opinion from the privacy commissioner about publicly releasing detailed expense accounts for MLA's. There are legal concerns about releasing the salaries of constituency workers in MLAs' offices, because they are technically not government employees.

Former clerk's contract questioned

The committee also discussed the future of former legislative clerk George MacMinn, one of the most senior experts on parliamentary procedure in the entire British Commonwealth.

MacMinn retired recently as a civil servant, but has since been hired as a private consultant at a rate of  $240,000 a year to assist his replacement.

The NDP dropped their motion on Tuesday to end that contract after learning it was approved last year by all MLAs in a vote in the house. But the NDP continued to raise concerns about MacMinn's contract.

"It strikes me that a $250,000 a year contribution to a clerk consultant is unnecessary," said Opposition New Democrat committee member John Horgan.

"When people retire they get a gold watch and they move away. They don't get a two-year contract."

Horgan said he was concerned the job description details of MacMinn's two-year consulting contract are not known. He wondered if the contract could also cover other expenses, including "club fees."

The committee, which includes three Liberals, Speaker of the Legislature Bill Barisoff, and two New Democrats, agreed to examine MacMinn's contract.

The committee asked the clerk's office to provide a report into exactly what MacMinn has been doing to earn his money, and the governing Liberals have agreed to raise the issue for debate the next time the legislature sits.

MacMinn declined to comment when contacted by the media.

But his replacement Criag James told the committee MacMinn's contract was legally binding over the two years and if it was challenged, could "end up costing the legislative assembly a whole lot more."

Travel expenses questioned

James, who replaced MacMinn last year, told the committee he's committed to full financial and political accountability under his watch.

He said his office has made great strides towards cleaning up the books and he intends on making the legislature a "shining model of accountability."

"I will not have my name attached to a bad audit," he told the committee.

But minutes after the committee's historic first public meeting adjourned, a B.C.-based political watchdog group, IntegrityBC, released documents obtained under a freedom of information request, detailing James's travel expenses while he was the acting chief of Elections BC, the province's electoral monitor.

"British Columbians paid thousands of dollars for the former head of Elections BC to take his wife on a business trip to Africa and for him to later stay at an exclusive private club in Washington, D.C. and an Arizona resort," said an IntegrityBC statement.

IntegrityBC said James's $43,295 bill for travel expenses between Aug. 25 and Dec. 12, 2010. Elections BC confirmed there are new travel rules that bar officials from travelling in business class.

IntegrityBC said James travelled to Nairobi, Kenya, with his wife, to attend a Commonwealth Parliamentary conference and also stayed at exclusive resorts in Washington, DC and Phoenix, Arizona.

James defends travel expenses

James confirmed the travel costs but denied they were lavish or exclusive. He said he often saves money because political and financial organizations cover some of his costs and said IntegrityBC never called him to get his side of the story.

"It's not factual and it's a disappointing feature of somebody who would call themselves IntegrityBC," said James.

He confirmed spending $14,523 for two business class seats to attend the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Conference in Nairobi, Kenya with his wife.

James said the flight was a deal under a group rate obtained through a travel agent that ended up costing less than a single fare on Air Canada.

ElectionsBC travel entitlements at that time permitted the splitting of airfare costs up to and including business class fares with another person. The entitlements have since been dropped.

James said his $399-per-night stay, plus taxes, at the Arizona Biltmore Resort and Spa in Phoenix coincided with a conference at the facility.

With files from The Canadian Press