Skip to content

Speaker offers to rescind gag orders on fired B.C. legislature staff

Employees fired in recent years from the legislature for trying to blow the whistle on a spending scandal might soon have their gag orders lifted by Speaker Darryl Plecas.
B.C. legislature in downtown Victoria.

Employees fired in recent years from the legislature for trying to blow the whistle on a spending scandal might soon have their gag orders lifted by Speaker Darryl Plecas.

But that clemency won’t extend to political staffers who might have noticed wrongdoing inside their parties or by their MLAs, because of limitations to the Speaker’s power.

Plecas intends to cancel the non-disclosure agreements that some of the 20 terminated legislature staff were forced to sign in exchange for severance, as long as those people were employed directly by the legislature, said his chief of staff Alan Mullen.

“We’re talking about long-term employees, 10, 15, 20 or 28 years, alleging that they got terminated without cause for asking questions.”

Some of those employees tried to highlight alleged misspending practices by clerk Craig James and sergeant-at-arms Gary Lenz that Plecas outlined in a report last week, said Mullen. When they were fired, they were offered severance packages that came with requirements to sign non-disclosure agreements that forbade them from speaking publicly about what they know, Mullen said.

The Speaker wants to interview them, as well as allow them to speak freely to whatever outside agency is hired to do the workplace review of the legislature that MLAs voted to authorize last week, Mullen said.

“Anybody who wants to bring allegations of wrongdoing, they should be afforded the opportunity,” Mullen said. “They shouldn’t be bound by non-disclosure agreements.”

Plecas’s report flagged lavish international trips by James and Lenz, $1,000 luggage, suits, electronics, $5,000 in digital magazine subscriptions, a wood splitter allegedly stored and used at James’s home, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in retirement, life-insurance and vacation pay benefits.

Politicians from all parties — who are supposed to oversee legislative spending through a management committee — condemned the expenses in the report. James and Lenz are suspended with pay. They have not been charged with any crime and have denied any wrongdoing. They have been invited by MLAs to respond to the Plecas report in writing by Feb 1.

The Speaker’s offer to lift non-disclosure agreements for fired staff won’t extend to aides, researchers, assistants and other staff who worked for party caucuses and MLAs in the building, because their employment and termination deals are handled by the parties themselves, said Mullen.

“However, we will move heaven and earth to be as helpful as possible in helping those folks as well,” he said. “Obviously, we have no control over rescinding … the non-disclosure agreements for those folks.”

The Plecas report pointed to one B.C. Liberal aide who alleged he was terminated after expressing concern that Liberal MLA Linda Reid may have double-billed for taxis and personal mileage on her vehicle at the same time.

The legislature will have to proceed carefully if it plans on cancelling non-disclosure agreements, because in some cases it is both the employee and the employer who agree to silence in order to avoid embarrassing details about each other’s conduct from becoming public, said Paul McLean, a partner at Mathews Dinsdale and a workplace law expert.

“The benefits would flow both ways,” he said. “For the employee, they get paid. For the employer, the benefit would be, ‘We don’t want you to talk about your time here or your terms of settlement.’ But, down the road, if the employer says, ‘We are no longer going to require you to abide by that term … we are going to give you free rein to disclose it and discuss it,’ I’d say that’s sufficient.”

Even if the confidentiality provisions are lifted, the rest of the settlements will remain in place and it won’t likely mean those employees who were fired can then demand more severance, said McLean.

Plecas has told the media he wants to see “justice” for those treated wrongly by the legislature.