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The spy thriller that wasn’t

Maclean Kay: After prosecutors declined to charge former Sergeant-at-Arms Gary Lenz, it’s increasingly clear the legislature spending scandal was about exactly that – spending – and not something more exotic.
Plecas Scrum
Darryl Plecas speaks to media

Last week, two special prosecutors announced they have declined to file charges against former BC Legislature Sergeant-at-Arms Gary Lenz.

Understandably, Lenz views this as vindication. And he’s in good company; in a similar situation, the NDP were only too happy to point to prosecutors declining to charge MLA Jinny Sims as exoneration.

Not pressing charges isn’t proof of innocence, but sometimes an admission the chance of prosecution is small, or the charges aren’t worth court time.

This hazy uncertainty is emblematic of the legislative spending scandal in general.

Whatever happens, former Speaker Darryl Plecas and his Chief of Staff Alan Mullen really did discover and effectively halt some egregious behaviour. Former Clerk Craig James still faces six charges that stem from Plecas’ extensively documented original report.

If this whole affair leads to the creation of more oversight, in the long run, the legislature will be a better place for it. But the tragedy (and error) of Darryl Plecas and Alan Mullen is that they didn’t know when to stop.

After discovering irregularities and improprieties, they didn’t confront James or Lenz, but began a clandestine investigation. As time went on, they didn’t see entitlement run rampant, but a rabbit hole of conspiracy.

“So [police investigators] doing their thing and boy, are they paying attention. That’s coming down the pike, so that’s gonna be a big bump,” said Mullen in a February 2019 interview.

“Then you’ve got the forensic financial audit. If they go back beyond eighteen months, we’ll luck out for hundreds of millions of dollars.”

“It’s gonna be crazy. Then you’ve got the workplace review, and overhaul is an understatement. I think that’s gonna be the biggest bump yet.”

But that just simply didn’t happen. Nothing like hundreds of millions of dollars are at play here, unless James or others somehow ate several years’ worth of the legislature’s total operating budget. There were no more real bombshells, though many were promised. “Overhaul” turned out to be an overstatement.

Why? Because it appears James’ alleged indiscretions – which again, absolutely warranted intervention and action – were pretty much the extent of it. Plecas introduced more reports, and a steady stream of allegations, but they simply didn’t stick.

No less an authority than former Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin found only four of Plecas’ eight allegations against James warranted misconduct, and none against Lenz. Worse, she seriously questioned Plecas’ entire approach, saying Plecas “appeared to see his role through the lens of a police investigation and criminal prosecution, rather than the lens of an administrator.”

As McLachlin wrote: “He seemed to have seen his task as to build a credible criminal-type case against Mr. James and Mr. Lenz, rather than promptly confronting and correcting the administrative practices that he questioned. He focused on an investigatory line of inquiry at the expense of his duty to ensure that the affairs of the Legislative Assembly were properly administered on a current basis.”

At the time, there was no immediately obvious reason why Plecas didn’t just sit James and Lenz down, and stop it. Instead, he and Mullen convinced themselves – and a few others – that instead of having laudably "merely" blown the whistle on a spending scandal, they had instead stumbled into a spy thriller.

In the cold light of hindsight, episodes like clandestine overnight computer hard drive collecting, or Plecas floating Mullen as the interim and/or replacement Sergeant-at-Arms feel even more like a wildly unnecessary, unwarranted, and irresponsible sideshow. Or spy show, even.

Again, that’s the tragedy here. They really did discover something amiss, and did something about it. But all too often, scandals are exactly what they first appear: someone taking something that wasn’t theirs, because they thought they could. Nothing more, nothing less.

As the headlines fizzled out, and it became clear the NDP were only too happy to return to a life where the Speaker’s Office merely runs the legislature, there was one last roll of the dice: allegations of a listening device planted in the legislature’s ceremonial mace.

“I’m of the opinion, the former Speaker is of the opinion, and others say the only reasonable explanation is a listening device in the Speaker’s office. That’s the road we’re going down here,” Mullen told CTV.

Nobody else went down that road. It was fantasy, with not even a spectre of truth. Victoria Police dutifully investigated, and concluded there was no criminal wrongdoing.

A bug placed in the ceremonial mace, to eavesdrop on (we can only assume) the investigations of the Speaker of the BC Legislature and his staff. It sounds preposterous, because it is preposterous.

It was a self-inflicted blow to their credibility – and completely unnecessary. But once you’ve had a taste for La Vie le Carré, it’s hard to go back to the mundanity of everyday life.

Maclean Kay is Editor-in-Chief of The Orca