B.C. premier says government power is limited on legislature oversight

B.C. premier says government power is limited on legislature oversight

File photo courtesy Michael McArthur/CBC.

File photo courtesy Michael McArthur/CBC.

British Columbia Premier John Horgan says a recent report alleging spending abuses by the clerk and sergeant-at-arms raises concerns about a broader culture of “entitlement” in the legislature, but there isn’t much he can do as premier.

Horgan said the Speaker and a management committee are responsible for the legislature, while as premier he is head of the government. All the government can do is pass legislation to increase oversight, he said.

“I appreciate this sounds odd but it’s just the way it is,” he told reporters Monday.

“I raised these issues five, six years ago, when I was on the Legislative Assembly Management Committee. I said, ‘Why are these two guys exempt? Why are they not covered by any of the oversight that anybody else is?'”

The committee, chaired by the Speaker and made up of the three house leaders and other legislature members, is responsible for the financial accounting of the legislature.

Speaker Darryl Plecas released a report last week that alleged clerk Craig James and sergeant-at-arms Gary Lenz overspent on trips, purchased personal items at taxpayers’ expense, and misappropriated alcohol and equipment.

James and Lenz were placed on administrative leave in November during an ongoing police investigation. Both men deny any wrongdoing and say the allegations will be proven untrue.

Horgan, a New Democrat, said the previous Liberal government ignored the concerns he raised on the committee. He said the allegations in the report by Plecas “absolutely” raise concerns about the culture of the legislature.

When James was appointed clerk, the Opposition NDP voted against it because there was no process and no competition, Horgan said. The Liberals had previously “arbitrarily” installed James as chief electoral officer, he added.

“It’s a big deal and we raised it at the time but the Liberals were in government,” he said. “They should be the ones answering these questions, not me.”

Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson said the Liberal caucus wants to see the situation fixed, but Horgan is looking for someone to blame. Horgan has been premier for the past 18 months while the alleged improper spending occurred, he noted in a telephone interview.

Wilkinson disputed that Horgan raised concerns on the management committee several years ago.

“He said nothing about expenses. It’s a little bit rich now,” he said.

A transcript of a 2012 committee meeting shows Horgan did raise concerns about the committee not having jurisdiction over “management” of legislature officers including the sergeant-at-arms and clerk. Horgan said he was concerned the officers were only accountable to the Speaker.

The transcript shows that James responded he was not opposed to additional oversight, but he believed it would require a legislative change. The Liberal government did not pursue such a change, nor did the Liberal-controlled management committee.

In response to Horgan’s comment that he has little influence over the legislature, Wilkinson said NDP members of the legislature, including House Leader Mike Farnworth, now control the management committee.

“John Horgan squarely is responsible for the events of the last 18 months, and he was on the management committee when things started to go sideways seven, eight years ago. It’s him that needs to be accountable for this.”

Wilkinson has called for the immediate public posting online of all legislature expenses, a ban on foreign travel unless approved six weeks in advance by the all-party committee that manages the legislature’s finances, and a review of accounting procedures by the auditor general.

Horgan said the management committee must decide whether to call a review by Auditor General Carol Bellringer.

“I have no problem with her going in and doing the audit,” he said.

After the report by Plecas was released last week, Lenz and James said in a joint statement they had only just learned of its contents.

“We are only now able to read the allegations for the first time and we are confident that time will show that they are completely false and untrue,” they said.

Horgan fielded a number of questions on Monday. On the issue of Canada’s relationship with China after the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou at Vancouver’s airport last month, Horgan said the association is deteriorating.

He said B.C. does a lot of business with China and although there’s uncertainty at the moment he’s confident the two jurisdictions will move past it.
Story by Laura Kane, The Canadian Press

Files from The Canadian Press.

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