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Spending a ‘marked departure’ from former B.C. legislature clerk’s duties, Crown says

Wood splitter, cushion, beekeeping book among items under microscope in Craig James trial

A book on beekeeping, a wood splitter and a cushion decorated with the Union Jack and the words “God Save the Queen,” are among the items that a special prosecutor alleges former B.C. legislature clerk Craig James improperly paid for with government dollars.

David Butcher began arguments Monday in James’s B.C. Supreme Court trial, alleging the offences also involved a $250,000 retirement allowance and travel expenses.

James pleaded not guilty to two counts of fraud over $5,000 and three counts of breach of trust by a public officer. His defence lawyers have not yet presented arguments in court.

“Mr. James was no ordinary employee. As the parliamentary equivalent of a CEO, he had a responsibility to the institution (and) the people of British Columbia to manage the affairs and resources of the legislature in an exemplary manner,” Butcher said.

Instead, Butcher told the court, James used public dollars for personal gain.

“Crown alleges that Mr. James’s conduct, at different times and in different ways, was a marked departure from the standard of responsible management expected of a person occupying one of the highest offices in the province,” he said.

Associate Chief Justice Heather Holmes is hearing the case, which is expected to include testimony from 27 witnesses over at least three weeks.

Former legislature Speaker Darryl Plecas, who produced a report outlining allegations of misspending against James in January 2019, is not expected to testify.

The clerk is the senior officer of the house, responsible for advising the Speaker on parliamentary procedure and performing the key administrative functions of the legislature.

James was suspended from the post in 2018 after an RCMP investigation into allegations of spending on personal expenses at the legislature.

Beverley McLachlin, the former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, was appointed to look into the allegations outlined in the Plecas report.

Her report found James improperly claimed benefits and used legislature property for personal reasons. It also said there was a lack of clarity in authority over expenses and administrative matters at the legislature that were the core of her investigation.

On Monday, Butcher said that if there were insufficient or unclear policies to guide his conduct, then it was James’s job to correct them.

The case against James has three facets, he said. The first is the payment of the retirement benefit, the second is travel expense claims and souvenir purchases and third is the purchase of a trailer and wood splitter.

The court heard that James approved a proposal to buy the wood splitter and trailer as part of a $65,000 expenditure in 2017 on emergency materials in case of a disaster like an earthquake or terrorist attack.

The purchase was rationalized as equipment that could be used for heating, rescue and extractions and that might be applied to fallen hydro poles and cleaning up debris.

However, the court heard that the trailer was stored for months at a storage facility 28 kilometres from the legislature, while the wood splitter was kept at James’s house 13.4 kilometres away.

“The equipment would have been utterly useless in an emergency,” Butcher said.

He said a witness would testify that the wood splitter had been used to process the equivalent of two to three pickup truck loads.

The Crown is also calling witnesses relating to the advancement of a claim in 2012 for the payment of a retirement allowance for $257,988.

The retirement benefit was established in 1984 and accrued benefits until 1987 for those officers who didn’t receive either a public service pension plan or executive benefit plan, the court heard.

The benefit was discontinued in 2012, one year after James took the position of clerk, the court heard.

Butcher said then-Speaker Bill Barisoff wrote in a letter to James that to ensure full compliance of the terms of the benefit, all officers who have pursued entitlements and remained unpaid should be paid out.

The termination of the benefit suggests the program was formally recognized as not necessary in light of existing compensation arrangements, Butcher said.

—Amy Smart, The Canadian Press

RELATED: Breach of trust trial begins for former B.C. legislature clerk Craig James