B.C. Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson looks foolish in wake of legislature spending scandal

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      This morning, the most popular provincial politician in B.C. just might be Speaker Darryl Plecas.

      The former B.C. Liberal MLA—now an independent after being expelled from the caucus and the party—blew the whistle on a long list of questionable expenses by two senior officials at the legislature.

      According to Plecas's 76-page report, there were "inappropriate payouts of cash in lieu of vacation, which appear to total in the hundreds of thousands of dollars".

      He also raised questions about a lack of protocols in the awarding of employment benefits. Plecas cleverly figured out how to document the clerk's request for one year's severance for himself and another senior staff member who had worked for at least 10 years.

      That's to say nothing of unusual expenditures for such things as luggage, a waterproof camera, noise-cancelling headphones, clothing, and a wood-splitter.

      The two officials at the centre of the story, clerk Craig James and sergeant-at-arms Gary Lenz, have insisted they've done nothing wrong.

      Moreover, they say they haven't been given an opportunity to reply to the allegations in Plecas's report. And none of the claims have been proven in court.

      In the media, however, Plecas is coming across as a brave public servant.

      To many, it looks like he was willing to risk his career to protect the interests of taxpayers.

      And it appears that he was willing to take action when his predecessors as speaker, B.C. Liberal MLA Linda Reid and former B.C. Liberal MLA Bill Barisoff, stood by idly.

      It's worth noting that the federal Liberal candidate in Burnaby South, Richard T. Lee, was deputy speaker of the B.C. legislature from 2015 until he was defeated in 2017.

      This means there could be blowback against him, too, when supporters of the other candidates are knocking on doors in the riding.

      On the federal side, the biggest beneficiary could turn out to be NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who's running against Lee.

      The federal Liberal candidate in the Burnaby South by-election, Richard T. Lee, was deputy speaker of the B.C. legislature from 2015 to 2017.
      Charlie Smith

      B.C. Liberal leader said Plecas was "out of control"

      The politician with the most to lose in this situation is B.C. Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson.

      After James and Lenz were placed on administrative leave and escorted out of the legislature, Wilkinson led a rearguard action to try to discredit Plecas and his aide, Alan Mullen.

      Mullen conducted the initial probe before turning over his findings to the RCMP. He claimed yesterday that everything in Plecas's report is documented with receipts.

      That wasn't how the B.C. Liberals were spinning this late last year.

      "There is a grave concern that the speaker is out of control," Wilkinson was quoted in the Times Colonist on November 26. "We need to be concerned that he's building his own little empire, staffed with expensive lawyers, with investigators with no credentials and he's being allowed to get away with it."

      Here's another quote from the same article: "We have a real problem if we have the Speaker off in his own realm because the Speaker is nothing more than the referee in this chamber. And if he thinks he's going to run a parallel government with an investigative arm and a legal arm, we have to stop that behaviour.”

      This is pure campaign gold for the NDP in the January 30 Nanaimo by-election. Advance voting begins today.

      Moreover, Wilkinson declared last November that if the B.C. Liberal caucus had a second chance to vote on the decision to suspend James and Lenz with pay, it would have asked detailed questions.

      He was bothered by "wrecking the careers and reputations of people".

      On November 26, the B.C. Liberals devoted an entire question period to peppering Attorney General David Eby with inquiries about the suspension of James and Lenz.

      On that one day, questions were asked not only by Wilkinson, but also by B.C. Liberal MLAs Shirley Bond, Jas Johal, Laurie Throness, Todd Stone, Michelle Stilwell, Peter Milobar, Michael Lee, and Mike de Jong. It was a full-court press by the B.C. Liberal caucus.

      Each time, Eby replied that the matter was under investigation and he would be making no comment.

      The barrage of B.C. Liberal questions came on the same day that James and Lenz held a news conference at the Vancouver law office of Fasken asking to be reinstated while the police investigation continued.

      The timing of Wilkinson's comments and the B.C. Liberal questions helped advance a story line in the media that the two senior officials had been treated unfairly.

      In a year-end interview with CTV News at Six, Wilkinson even described the situation as a "farce".

      "The whole thing smelled really badly by the Wednesday afternoon, two days after the first meeting," the B.C. Liberal leader told CTV.

      The Recall Darryl Plecas Facebook page features a prominent photo of the clerk of the legislature, Craig James.

      Report could spell end of recall campaign

      It's easy to conclude that the B.C. Liberals' attacks on Plecas were linked to a looming recall campaign being organized against the speaker.

      If Plecas could be fired by his constituents under recall and initiative legislation, Wilkinson's party could possibly elect a 43rd member to the legislature and perhaps bring down the NDP government.

      Politics trumped the public interest.

      In fact, the Facebook page calling for Plecas's recall features a photo of him near legislature clerk Craig James.

      It hints that the speaker's actions in this case warrant having him ousted.

      But this morning, in the eyes of many, this photo only enhances Plecas's reputation.

      And the politician with the most egg on his face is the B.C. Liberal leader for not waiting for more facts to come forward before expressing concerns that Plecas might be "out of control" and that the investigation appeared to be a "farce".

      Since John Horgan became NDP leader in 2014—and particularly since early 2016—his party's narrative has been that the B.C. Liberals turn a blind eye to wrongdoing.

      Wilkinson's conduct in the legislature spending scandal, notwithstanding the denials by James and Lenz, aren't going to change the views of those who share that perception.

      Judgement is important in politics.

      On this front, the courageous Plecas is looking far better this morning than the man leading the party that expelled him.