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Adding up

Looking back after the latest installment in the legislature spending scandal.
Plecas Scrum
Darryl Plecas speaks to media

The legislative spending scandal didn’t start when Clerk Craig James and Sergeant-at-Arms Gary Lenz were suspended, or when Darryl Plecas became Speaker, or issued his first report. It went back years.

Who was to blame for not spotting it? Everybody and nobody. It’s a cultural blind spot. In politics, there are a lot of drivers, and not many mechanics – people who see and understand nuts and bolts problems under the hood.

For example, a BC Liberal and NDP MLA were both recent victims of fraud by their respective constituency assistants. After the fact, many wondered how that could happen – how an MLA wouldn’t notice constituency office money going astray for a while. But really, there’s no reason they would have. If the bills are getting paid, and the lights stay on, there’s no reason to assume something is amiss.

It was much the same with the legislature.

"In politics, there are a lot of drivers, and not many mechanics."

James seems to have played fast and loose with the rules – and as the Auditor General reported, more oversight is needed – but while it was happening, there was no compelling reason to look more closely. If you’re wondering why overstretched media didn’t, it’s simply that their focus was, and still mostly is, on the politicians elected to the legislature, rather than the staff who run it.

So no, it simply never occurred to me or most others to check Craig James’ driveway for a wood chipper. It did occur to Darryl Plecas, and he deserves credit for that. But it’s one thing to find fault in others, it’s quite another to live up to those same standards.

Since the scandal broke – and Plecas said he’d resign if British Columbians didn’t vomit when they found out more – two in-depth investigations and reports have taken place, by two eminently qualified and distinguished women, including the Auditor General, and a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada.

Plecas expressed a distinct lack of satisfaction with both reports. What’s going on here?

There are two realistic explanations.

One, Plecas still knows something we don’t, and two investigations failed to shed light on bigger, more vomitous issues. And for whatever reason, despite growing pressure and scrutiny, he cannot or will not share those things. Here it absolutely has to be noted there are still two special prosecutors working, and an RCMP investigation underway. You never know.

The other possibility is more complicated. Plecas was right about some of Craig James’ excesses (which McLachlin confirms) and systemic issues with approvals and oversight (and Bellringer confirms that). Everyone jokes about the wood chipper, but there may well be more egregious – and expensive – examples, which warrant RCMP investigation.

But what if…that’s kind of it? What if there’s no conspiracy, no widespread corruption, no plot by the security staff – just garden-variety (but still very much illegal) bad decisions? What if the zeal has gone too far, and nobody knows how to walk it back?

"What if...that's kind of it?"

Whatever the explanation, that zeal, and fine-tooth comb investigation of James’ and Lenz’ expenses, are hard to square with his silence in the face of questions why his own office’s travel expenses have tripled in just one year. After all, if it’s worth quibbling over a particular dinner Gary Lenz expensed for his wife, a $60,000 travel tab warrants an explanation

Doesn’t it?

In a scandal that began with spending and expense claims, it’s fitting that things still don’t seem to add up.

Maclean Kay is Editor-in-Chief of The Orca