VANCOUVER — British Columbia’s former clerk of the legislature dishonestly claimed expenses for work attire and received payment on a false basis, a judge said Thursday in finding Craig James guilty of fraud and breach of trust.
Associate Chief Justice Heather Holmes of the B.C. Supreme Court said James breached the standard of conduct expected of him in his public position in a "serious and marked way" when he claimed expenses for dress shirts, a tie and a suit bought in Vancouver and London in 2018.
"And he knew that would deprive the legislative assembly of funds he ought not to have been reimbursed," Holmes said of nearly $1,900 in clothing James claimed as chamber attire. "His purpose was a dishonest one, to benefit himself at the public's expense."
But because the breach of trust and fraud charges were related to the same set of evidence, the judge entered a stay on the fraud count.
"There will be a conditional stay of proceedings in relation to the charge on count 6, and no conviction entered," Holmes told James, despite the finding of guilt.
James was found not guilty on three other counts of breach of trust related to a $258,000 retirement benefit, which Crown prosecutors alleged he received improperly by taking advantage of weak policies.
He was also found not guilty of fraud for buying a wood splitter and trailer that were kept at his home and which James said were bought for emergency preparedness at the legislature.
Holmes said the purchase of the equipment, which was at his home for about a year, may have been ill-advised and unnecessary, but officials gave their approval and the evidence does not suggest James interfered with that process.
During the trial, court heard James bought dozens of items like cuff links, a cushion adorned with a Union Jack and a book on beekeeping, as well as commemorative stamps and coins while on trips to the United Kingdom, the United States and Hong Kong.
But Holmes said Thursday that the evidence does not establish beyond a reasonable doubt that they were for his personal use.
Neither James nor his lawyers spoke outside court after the judge's ruling.
Crown spokesman Dan McLaughlin said he could not comment before the sentencing hearing. A date for sentencing is expected to be set on May 26.
House leader Mike Farnworth said "significant changes" have taken place to ensure that what happened with James can never happen again.
Farnworth said that includes transparency in terms of how the clerk’s and Speaker’s offices operate "when it comes to things such as expenses, all being proactively disclosed and going online so the public can see how that money’s being spent."
James's defence team said at trial that their client did not stand to personally gain from any of the allegations and some decisions involving finances were based on subjective views in the absence of a clear, written policy.
James was suspended with pay in November 2018, along with then-sergeant-at-arms Gary Lenz, following allegations of misspending that prompted an RCMP escort out of the B.C. legislature.
Lenz was not charged and initially asked to be reinstated, but later said he would be retiring.
Defence lawyer Kevin Westell told the trial that the wood splitter and trailer were bought in 2017 after discussions about the need for emergency preparedness in case of an earthquake or other natural disaster that required wood, rebar and concrete to be cut so people at the legislature could be rescued.
The Crown alleged the equipment would have been useless, especially because it wasn't even at the legislature.
James took the equipment home after conversations with others about a lack of suitable storage space at the legislature and suggestions that leaving it in an area close to the street could have had the public using it as a garbage receptacle, Westell said.
He said then-Speaker Darryl Plecas was "the head of the pyramid" among at least three others who gave approval for the purchase of the wood splitter and trailer.
However, Crown prosecutor Brock Martland argued the Speaker's role included constituency duties, not day-to-day management of the legislature, for which James was responsible.
Martland said even if others fell short, James had no excuse for conduct involving improper claims that should not have been advanced.
He said James had a "consistent theme of misrepresentation" on invoices for some items like dress shirts, though he wore so-called "tabs" in the legislature, similar to the attire of lawyers in some courts.
The allegations against James and Lenz were outlined in a January 2019 report by Plecas, who conducted his own confidential investigation alleging the two men spent money inappropriately on personal items, foreign trips, vacation payouts and retirement allowances.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 19, 2022.
Camille Bains, The Canadian Press