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Defence says no evidence of corruption in B.C. Legislature clerk fraud trial

Craig James pleaded not guilty to two counts of fraud over $5,000 and one count of breach of trust
Craig James, former clerk of the B.C. legislative assembly, arrives back at B.C. Supreme Court after a break from his trial, in Vancouver, on Tuesday, March 1, 2022. A special prosecutor says British Columbia’s former clerk of the legislative assembly used public funds to enrich himself in “glaring and egregious” ways during closing arguments. James’s defence is expected to present its case Wednesday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

A lawyer for British Columbia’s former clerk of the legislative assembly has accused special prosecutors and witnesses of “rewriting history” in his criminal trial.

Gavin Cameron presented defence arguments Wednesday in the B.C. Supreme Court trial of Craig James, who has pleaded not guilty to two counts of fraud over $5,000 and one count of breach of trust.

He told Associate Chief Justice Heather Holmes that the case has been under pressure from the public spotlight after former Speaker Darryl Plecas embarked on a “crusade” to find wrongdoing.

Plecas published a report in 2019 detailing allegations of misspending at the legislature months after James was placed on administrative leave amid an RCMP investigation.

“It’s scarce to find a matter which has received more public notoriety than this one — with reportage, multiple investigations, multiple interviews — in this province,” Cameron said.

Crown prosecutors have said the case rests on three main areas: James’s claim to a $258,000 retirement allowance; his role in the purchase and storage of a wood splitter and trailer; and his personal expense claims.

They have argued that James used his position, which they likened to the CEO of the legislature, to take advantage of weaknesses in policy to enrich himself.

However, Cameron argued that a guilty verdict could only be supported with proof of corruption and there’s no evidence of that.

James was transparent with each of his claims, which were overseen by multiple responsible individuals who raised only “a handful of questions” over half a decade and never lodged a complaint, Cameron said.

When a problem was identified, he tried to fix it. James immediately changed his conduct after he was told alcohol was an inappropriate gift and wrote a personal cheque to reimburse an ineligible expense claim for a taxi fare, Cameron said.

Cameron’s defence colleague, Kevin Westell, said James inherited a broken system when he was named clerk in 2011 but he did what he could to fill the gaps, including forming an audit working group and inviting members of the auditor general’s office to join meetings.

By 2017, he said 33 of 36 serious issued identified by the auditor general’s office had been rectified.

And the decision to award James a retirement benefit was that of the Speaker of the day, not James, Cameron said.

It was only after Plecas went on a “crusade” and “threatened” staff that concerns were raised, Cameron alleged.

Plecas brought the initial complaint against James to the RCMP, provided them with documents, and carried on his own investigation in parallel to the Mounties, he said.

Although Cameron said he did not believe any witness would be intentionally dishonest, he urged the judge to take their testimony with “significant caution.”

“In my submission, a culture of fear reigned,” he said.

He pointed to testimony from one legislative employee who told the court that Plecas and his special adviser Alan Mullen screamed at him “like a dog” and told him he was either with them or against them in the investigation.

Randall Ennis, who was acting sergeant-at-arms in 2018, said the incident occurred after he told the pair he believed the acting clerk should be informed of the RCMP investigation.

“Even those who felt they didn’t have to consciously tailor their evidence had it unconsciously tailored for them. Mr. Plecas wrote a highly publicized report containing inflammatory and demonstrably false allegations,” Cameron said.

Cameron accused Crown prosecutors of overstating their case against James, which he said isn’t backed up with sufficient evidence.

“The evidence showed that reasonable and legitimate people acting within reasonable administrative frameworks considered the matters carried on in the open by Mr. James and never once suggested there was fraud or crime,” he said.

“The worst that can be said of Mr. James is that he’s guilty of bureaucratic ineptitude. That’s not a crime.”

— Amy Smart, The Canadian Press

RELATED: ‘Glaring and egregious’: Closing arguments underway in B.C. clerk case