Full booze cabinets raised Plecas’s suspicions on first day as speaker

Abbotsford-South MLA grew increasingly concerned about luxury trips by top legislative officials.

When Darryl Plecas assumed the duties of Speaker at the BC Legislative, many opined that the Abbotsford South MLA’s biggest challenge would be dealing with BC Liberals angry about his departure from the party in order to take the job.

But while Plecas made few waves in front of cameras over the next year, it turned out the Speaker was also growing increasingly suspicious of the lavish spending habits of the top two non-political officers in the Legislature.

In an explosive report this week, Plecas details the spending habits of Sergeant-at-Arms Gary Lenz and Clerk of the House Craig James and alleges the pair encouraged him into getting the taxpayer to foot the bill for booze, clothes, watches and international travel.

The two highly paid public servants were suspended from their posts in November, but the reasons for their departures weren’t made public until this week. In the meantime, Plecas was criticized for his handling of the situation and the participation of his friend and special adviser, Alan Mullen, under what had been unclear circumstances.

Monday’s 76-page report – which was accompanied by dozens of individual receipts – clarified many outstanding questions, while prompting some new ones. The News has requested an interview with Plecas.

Lenz and James, meanwhile, have disputed the assertions made in the report, and will have until Feb. 1 to provide a full response to a legislature committee. They will have a lot to explain.

James and Lenz claimed expenses for things like a monthly Apple Music plan, niche magazines like Palm Springs Life, and fancy mustard. They frequently flew to Europe, where they would stay in luxury hotels and buy suits, ties and other trinkets on the public dime. It was all “part of the uniform,” Lenz would quip, despite his actual uniform not including any the garments. Beyond a long list of such expenses, the report suggests James – who made around $350,000 a year – also sought a massive $300,000 “retirement allowance.” Six years prior, he had received a similar payout.

• • • • •

Things seemed strange from the beginning, Plecas wrote.

On his first day, his new executive assistant led him into his new office.

“There was a jug of water, a bucket filled with ice and fresh flowers sitting on a cabinet,” he wrote. “I opened the cabinet and saw that it was full of liquor. Looking at the bottles, I recognized one of them and remarked, ‘Gee, that’s an expensive bottle of scotch.’ My new assistant said, ‘Mr. Speaker, you can have any kind you want if that is not good enough.’ ”

Later that day, Plecas said he found two more cabinets filled with booze in the main area outside his personal office.

Still, Plecas found much to learn in his first session as Speaker and wrote that he relied on James for advice. He also spoke daily with Lenz, who told him not to trust James.

In December, Plecas took his first trip abroad as speaker, along with James and Lenz. James had said a trip to London was needed for various meetings, including with MI5, and to procure an “official Speaker’s hat.”

Shortly after landing on a Friday, he was told that a Sunday meeting had been cancelled and the entire weekend was free. The trio stayed at a fancy hotel across the Thames River from Big Ben. Once Monday came, the three engaged in a series of meetings that seemed unimportant to Plecas. They also twice visited a store that sells suits and clothing for parliamentary officers, where Lenz and James bought a $1,000 suit to have shipped to Victoria.

“While there,” Plecas writes, “Mr. Lenz quipped to me that it was all ‘part of the uniform,’ which I suspected was an implication that they intended to expense all of the items to the Legislative Assembly.”

Souvenirs, scotch, stationery and other goods were then bought at a gift store. Plecas later learned the pair claimed all those expenses.

On the Wednesday, the trio flew to Edinburgh, where the same pattern repeated itself. James also arranged for a limousine to take the trio to the St. Andrews golf club. The three then took a train to London, before Lenz realized he had left his passport in Edinburgh. He returned to Scotland by train, then jetted back to London.

“When we were preparing to fly home,” Plecas wrote, “I commented that I had bought quite a bit of scotch and that it was likely to cost me a fair sum in duties. Mr. James replied along the lines of, ‘Do as I do – don’t declare anything.’ I didn’t take that advice and I was struck by the brazenness of the comment.”

Plecas said he was surprised by the luxuriousness of the trip, but “did not take an issue with it at the time because I was still new to the Speaker’s job and did not want to alienate these key officers…”

But over the ensuing months, his suspicions would grow. Whistleblowers came forward, and Lenz schemed against James. And there were more trips – first to China, then to the United Kingdom.

By the latter trip, Plecas said he was suspicious about the reasoning for the ventures and reluctant to take part. He said that, after consulting with others, he was convinced that cancelling would risk offending contacts in the U.K. Plecas wrote that he also hoped to use the trip to gather evidence on James’ and Lenz’s spending habits and determine whether his previous observations had been isolated incidents.

The same pattern from the last London trip repeated itself, complete with the purchase of a new suit and the quip “part of the uniform.” Plecas said he did not expense the suit, which plainly wasn’t needed for work, but that his two travelling companions did.

The trio also visited a gift shop.

“I was looking at the watches with Mr. Lenz and commented, ‘Those are nice watches,’ and he replied to me wryly, ‘part of the uniform,’ ” Plecas wrote. He said Lenz and James bought some things at the store, but Plecas didn’t know what they were. Later, when he returned to Victoria, he found one of the watches from the store on his desk. Like other items, it too was claimed as an expense.

• • • • •

As 2018 progressed, Plecas said Lenz schemed to have James removed from office by confiding in Mullen. At the same time, though, Lenz was suggesting a pay raise for Mullen. And in October, just a month before his removal, Lenz scheduled a meeting to discuss potential business trips in 2019. There were plenty of options, including Ottawa, Florida and Ireland.

Plecas wrote that the justification seemed like it would be determined only after the destination was selected.

Lenz said, according to Plecas:

“Okay, where in the world do you want to go?”

RELATED: B.C. legislature managers accused of excessive travel, personal expense claims

RELATED: Here’s what the B.C. legislature officers are accused of buying

RELATED: Why would the B.C. legislature need a firewood splitter?


@ty_olsen
tolsen@abbynews.com

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