As It Happens

Details of overspending in B.C. Legislature 'extremely concerning,' says Opposition House leader

Extravagant trips. Thousand-dollar suits with cufflinks to match. And a wood-splitter. B.C. Liberal House leader Mary Polak discusses the "flagrant overspending" that B.C. House Speaker Darryl Plecas accuses two top B.C. Legislature officials of.

Expensive travel, vacation payouts and a wood-splitter among listed expenses

Liberal House leader Mary Polak comments on the 76-page report following the legislative assembly management committee meeting during a press conference at the legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Monday. (Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press)

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Extravagant trips. Thousand-dollar suits with cufflinks to match. And a wood-splitter.

Those are just some of the examples of "flagrant overspending" that B.C. House speaker Darryl Plecas accuses two top B.C. Legislature officials of.

Plecas's 76-page report was released Monday, after it was reviewed by members of the legislature's management committee.

Clerk of the House Craig James and Sergeant-at-Arms Gary Lenz were both suspended Nov. 20 and escorted out of the legislature by police. The RCMP are investigating. They have not been charged with any crime, and have denied all wrongdoing.

B.C. Liberal House leader Mary Polak spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about the investigation. Here is part of their conversation.

Now that you have seen and heard the allegations — hundreds of thousands of dollars of over-spending, those are the allegations — what do you make of it?

Well, it's extremely concerning and I'm very glad that we finally have some light shed on this. It's been a real struggle for us as opposition pushing to have this information made public, and so [we're] very glad that it's out there in the open and we can finally deal with it. But it is quite shocking, the allegations.

What are the most shocking for you?

Well, I think the overall culture it appears to represent. So you can take apart the individual expenditures, but the real story, if these allegations prove to be true, is the kind of culture it represents at the legislature. And that should concern all of us.

Is it possible, with a bit of a stretch, that these could be legitimate expenses?

It's possible ... but I think it also raises questions around the policy. It's also entirely possible that the expenses listed, while they may come across as inappropriate to those of us who don't live those kinds of lifestyles, perhaps they were allowed in policy in some way. If that's the case, then I think we need to address that as well and hopefully, as a result of the audit that we've launched, hopefully we will get to the bottom of that and receive recommendations that will allow us to reassure the public that they don't have to be concerned about wild expenditures at the legislature.

From left: B.C. House Speaker Darryl Plecas, Clerk of the House Craig James, and Sergeant-at-Arms Gary Lenz, on Nov. 14, 2017. (Gregor Craigie/CBC)

And what about the travel? What about the international travel, the use of limousines and all that? I mean, do you think that that's part of the culture?

Well, on the face of it, it's certainly concerning. But it also raises that question: Were these expenditures allowed under the current policies? And is it appropriate if they were, are those appropriate? I mean that's not to say that from time to time there aren't expensive travel arrangements that are necessary to the job and certainly involve large sums of money. But to the extent that it's outlined in the report, it does not sound as though they were appropriately managed.

I guess the most egregious, the one that gets talked about the most, is this expensing of a wood-splitter and a trailer with a hitch to take tools around — $13,000 dollars total for that. Have you heard any explanation as to why they would purchase a wood-splitter for the legislature?

Well, in the report, it suggests that the explanation that was made had to do with emergency preparedness. Now I would have to hear something more detailed than that to believe that that was an appropriate expenditure. Now the two individuals, we've invited them to provide a response to the allegations in the report. We've asked for that by Feb. 1, and we'll see what they have to say about it.

Just because something is an allowable expense doesn't mean you should necessarily claim it.- Mary Polak, B.C. Liberal House leader

I wonder, in the end, if it's much like we learned with the case of the Senate in Ottawa that after a big audit discovered, well, basically this may not be good and the public may not like these kinds of expenses, [but] they were all perfectly legal. Is that likely to be discovered in the end?

It's possible. And one of the reasons we've asked for the audit is because it may be that while expenses outlined in the report are distasteful, that nevertheless they were allowable under policy. And if that's the case then we need to do some work to tighten up the policies that allow for that.

The onus is on us. We're the ones with the oversight. We have to do the work to be able to assure the public that these kinds of things are not going to happen to their taxpayer's money. They need to know that the people who are serving them are as responsible with their funds as they would be at home.

Just because something is an allowable expense doesn't mean you should necessarily claim it. You always have to ask yourself, as a servant to the public, not 'Am I allowed to do this?' but 'Should I do this?'

Written by Jonathan Ore with files from CBC News. Interview with Mary Polak produced by Sarah Jackson.

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