Appeared in the North Shore News – August 3, 2012
QUESTION: What is the difference between the B.C. legislature and Ponzi schemes?
Answer: Ponzi fraudsters keep accurate books.
So while the records of Ponzi crooks helpfully make police investigations simpler, our legislators collectively haven’t left a clearer paper trail than a kid’s lemonade stand.
Aw, that’s mean. But fact is the legislature’s nearly $70 million annual budget is such a colossal mess that Auditor-General John Doyle confessed he can’t tell if anyone had a hand in the cookie jar.
It is a relief that our North Shore MLAs – all Liberals – have assured me their own books are solid. And it’s a comfort to know an MLA committee was planning to travel to Victoria this week for a meeting concerning the legislature’s arithmetical inadequacies.
Hold on. Can we be sure their travel chits are accurate?
The Vancouver Sun ran the headline “Auditor-general slams fiscal farce” over thumbnail photos of every MLA, and crisply summed up: “$1.3 billion improperly recorded . . . No documentation for MLA travel expenses . . . $133-million gap between the legislature bank account and financial records . . . No annual financial statements.”
Seatless Conservative leader John Cummins demanded Speaker Bill Barisoff, the Liberal responsible for legislature business, resign and his New Democratic Party deputy, Dawn Black, take over.
“Especially troubling is the disclosure that Speaker Barisoff specifically requested the auditor-general to not examine the $119,000 annual constituency office allowance provided to each MLA,” Cummins thundered.
Back to the good news. I invited our local MLAs to comment on Doyle’s allegations and asked: “Are you confident that your personal records as MLA in these areas are in proper order?”
Naomi Yamamoto (North Vancouver-Lonsdale), minister of advanced education, responded: “It’s disturbing to hear that the accounting process for MLA expenses and legislature operations is not living up to public expectations. I submit receipts for all my travel and constituency expenses.
Taxpayers have a right to know how their money is being spent.
“I applaud the decision to review processes at the legislative assembly. Under the direction of the new clerk of the house, Craig James, changes have been introduced that will help ensure accountability.
“Let us await the actions of the Legislative Assembly Management Committee to address the concerns outlined by Mr. Doyle. I’m confident that the public interest will be properly served. Anything less is unacceptable.”
Commendably, Joan McIntyre (West Vancouver-Sea to Sky) replied almost immediately: “As a former business operator and a longterm member of the Select Standing Committee on Public Accounts, I am surprised and disappointed by the shortcomings. . . . It is particularly surprising since first elected in 2005 I have been compliant by promptly filing required receipts for travel expenses via my legislative assistant in Victoria. I am confident my records should be in order.”
Jane Thornthwaite (North Vancouver-Seymour) was also fast on the draw: “I provide receipts for everything including travel expenses. I am confident my office is managed correctly, and I continue to be open and transparent in everything I do on behalf of my constituents.”
Ralph Sultan (West Vancouver – Capilano) replied at length. Significant, because Sultan, former bank economist and Harvard professor, probably knows more about finance than anyone in the legislature.
Said Sultan: “I think the auditor-general’s attempt to shine a spotlight upon what has been – up to now – an excessively private world is to be encouraged. Auditor-General Doyle’s findings are an unsettling surprise, and as Mr. (John) Horgan of the New Democratic Party has already confessed, an embarrassment for all MLAs. It happened on our watch, and all must squirm.”
Sultan too called Craig James’s appointment as clerk of the house “good news.” That said, Sultan takes exception to “the rather indiscriminate tar brush wielded by Mr. Doyle. MLAs secretly running amok with legislative credit cards? Not true in my experience; the spending has always been there for all to see, on the web site . . . As evidence of the new management style, the legislative comptroller’s office has become very picky and finicky starting about 12 months ago.”
Travel and related expenses? In 2011, Sultan’s totalled $16,159, well within the norm for non-cabinet members, whose expenses ranged from $6,171 (Maurine Karagianis, NDP, Esquimalt-Royal Roads) to $61,532 (John Rustad, Liberal, Nechako Lakes, defensible in his role as chairman of the party’s huge northern caucus).
But Sultan says public questioning is reasonable: “It is one thing to walk to work in Victoria, versus (making) transportation connections to get there from the depths of the Columbia River Valley.
“But who can explain NDP front-bench star Rob Fleming somehow managing to spend $22,772 getting to work from his home in Victoria each year” – Fleming’s Wikipedia entry states that while on Victoria city council, he gained a reputation for being a “fiscally prudent democratic socialist” – “or Lana Popham, another Victoria-resident NDP star, who manages to spend $21,655 annually getting across town. Hmmm.”
© Trevor Lautens, 2012