Could there be anything more deliciously ironic than what lies at the centre of B.C.’s latest political scandal – a wood splitter?
Not just any wood splitter, but a wood splitter and trailer worth $13,000 that, until a few weeks ago, resided at the home of Craig James, the now-disgraced Clerk of the House at the B.C. legislature, the senior non-partisan position in the entire building making sure B.C. residents’ money is spent wisely and fairly on the necessities of government.
And for this vital and onerous task, James is reportedly remunerated by B.C. taxpayers to the tune of $350,000 annually.
That’s a salary which would buy a lot of wood splitters in case the coastal rain forest suddenly encroached on the verdant legislative grounds instead of being clear-cut to the ground – which is the usual fate of the province’s once magnificent ocean of trees.
And believe it or not, James is still drawing his magnificent salary while suspended on paid leave from the legislature along with Sergeant-at-Arms Gary Lenz, for allegedly misappropriating thousands in public funds.
The pair were perp-walked out of the gilded halls of the legislature by security guards last Nov. 27 while MLAs and spectators alike gazed, jaws agape at the bizarre sight.
It could only happen in B.C., a province renowned for trees and political scandal stretching back in time before much of the forest blanket was shredded to make toilet paper and clear the land for condos and burger stands.
As Kurtz said in Heart of Darkness, “the horror, the horror!”
But it’s true, as even this septuagenarian B.C. writer can remember growing up in the Kootenays where former Forests minister “Honest Bob” Sommers became the first cabinet member in the history of the British Commonwealth to be thrown in jail for accepting bribes from timber companies in the mid-1950s. But it didn’t end there. Far from it.
Those of us of a certain age remember well “Flying Phil” Gaglardi, a Pentecostal minister and former Social Credit highways minister renowned for many scandals.
Those include being ticketed numerous times for speeding on the very roads he built, and using a government Lear jet to fly his daughter-in-law and grandson to a church function in Dallas, for which he was booted from cabinet.
It also includes the seemingly coincidental ways his sons secured prime hotel building sites on land near highways built by their father.
And who can forget former B.C. Socred premier Bill Vander Zalm, or “the Zalm”, as he was more derisively known?
Vander Zalm was forced to resign as premier in 1991 after a conflict of interest investigation found he’d mixed private business with his public office in the sale of “Fantasy Gardens”, a religious theme park that he accepted a $20,000 payment for in a brown paper bag in connection with the sale, although he was not criminally convicted for the action.
But scandal is an equal opportunity employer in scandal-ridden B.C.
When the NDP returned to power in 1991, two NDP premiers subsequently quit after being engulfed in separate scandals.
Up first was Mike Harcourt in the “Bingogate” scandal of 1996.
Harcourt had no part in the scandal, but as he put it, “took a bullet for the NDP” and resigned because of a questionable bingo fundraising scheme by one of his cabinet ministers.
Glen Clark was next up, resigning in 1999 after allegations he had accepted $10,000 worth of free renovations to the deck of his East Vancouver house by a party supporter.
This on the heels of the “fast ferries” scandal which badly damaged Clark’s political reputation when the provincially financed ferries turned out not to be as speedy as claimed.
So, will it ever end?
This doesn’t appear likely when allegations continue to pile up of:
• lavish foreign travel by James and Lenz;
• $484 worth of chocolates and souvenirs from Westminster Palace;
• an unexplained “truck load” of alcohol worth almost $10,000 for the legislature;
• “inappropriate” cash payouts of hundreds of thousands of dollars in lieu of vacation pay;
• thousand-dollar suit purchases;
• $5,000 worth of digital magazine subscriptions, and;
• the $13,000 wood splitter and trailer, all going to the two senior bureaucrats in charge of keeping the politicians honest!
But don’t you think for a minute that the politicians themselves get off scot free on this.
Politicians from both parties sit on something called the Standing Committee on Internal Economy. That is supposed to monitor the spending of legislative bureaucrats like James and Lenz.
What the hell have these politicians been doing the last decade or two while all of this unconscionable spending has been occurring?
What have the former speakers been doing?
In fact, if there’s a hero in this sorry tale of malfeasance and skullduggery, it’s current Speaker Darryl Plecas.
He launched the revealing investigation in the first place, and was reviled by many – especially Liberal MLAs – until his shocking 76-page report came out this month and turned the legislature upside down.
What it amounts to is a culture of entitlement at the top of the legislative bureaucracy and, at the very least, a culture of indifference – if not entitlement – on the part of our elected politicians all on the taxpayers’ dime.
I really hate to say what follows because it comes from a politician I loathe.
Maybe it’s time to drain the swamp in Victoria.
Gerry Warner is former Star reporter from the 1990s and is now a retired B.C. journalist with a long memory for B.C. political scandals.
By Gerry Warner
Special to the Star