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

Fraud, breach of trust case against former clerk of the legislative assembly Craig James wrapping up
Craig James, former clerk of the British Columbia legislature, leaves B.C. Supreme Court on Jan. 26, 2022. Former Speaker of the legislature, Bill Barisoff is testifying at the trial of James, who has pleaded not guilty to two counts of fraud over $5,000 and three counts of breach of trust by a public officer in relation to allegations that he used his position for personal gain. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

British Columbia’s former clerk of the legislative assembly used public funds to enrich himself in “glaring and egregious” ways, a special prosecutor alleged Tuesday.

Brock Martland made the statement as he began closing arguments in the Crown’s case against Craig James, who has pleaded not guilty to two counts of fraud over $5,000 and three counts of breach of trust.

James’s defence is expected to present its case in the B.C. Supreme Court on Wednesday.

As the most senior officer of the legislature, James held a position akin to the CEO and was responsible for policy and financial stewardship of the institution.

Martland accused James of acting outside of his duties by picking up a wood splitter and trailer for the legislature and storing them at home for nearly a year, exploiting a weakness in the system to award himself a $258,000 retirement benefit and charging souvenirs to the public purse.

Martland said public trust in government officials is a critical part of a functioning democracy, and he alleged that James violated that trust.

“This case is about trust, specifically the public trust that we place in government officials,” Martland told the court.

“Our position is that the public trust was violated repeatedly and extensively by Craig James.”

In order to prove breach of trust, the Crown must convince Associate Chief Justice Heather Holmes that James was an official acting in connection with the duties of his office. It must also show that he acted in a “serious and marked departure” from the standard of his responsibilities and that he did so with intention, Martland said.

To prove the fraud charges, the Crown must show that James acted dishonestly in a way that caused deprivation to the legislature relating to the $3,200 wood splitter, $10,000 trailer and expense claims.

Martland urged the judge to look at the “whole picture” for context to assess intent, particularly when reviewing expense claims that span years and included playing cards, a bottle opener, whisky glasses and luggage.

“Mr. James seems to have been constitutionally incapable of walking past a gift shop without going in and purchasing souvenirs that he kept for himself but charged to his employer,” Martland said.

Court heard that James took it upon himself to travel to the Lower Mainland to pick up the trailer, which the prosecutor called an “unusual” departure from his responsibilities.

Although the wood splitter and trailer were approved as part of a package of equipment for use in case of an earthquake or other emergency, Martland argued that James’s decision to store them at his own home made them “utterly useless” and deprived the legislature of their use.

The largest payment at issue in James’s case is his claim of a $258,000 retirement allowance in 2012, not long after becoming clerk.

The allowance was created in 1984 for certain officers of the legislature who didn’t qualify for public pensions or executive benefit packages, and Martland argued it was discontinued in 1987 when compensation packages changed.

He said James expressed concern about the appropriateness of another person’s claim to the benefit when he first learned off it.

“Those concerns somehow evaporated. He saw an opportunity for himself and took it.”

Martland suggested James was in a conflict of interest when he provided a lawyer he retained with documents to interpret eligibility for the benefit that he later claimed himself.

James, who did not testify at the trial, began working at the legislature in 1987 and took the top job in 2011. He was escorted from the legislature in 2018 amid an RCMP investigation into alleged misspending and resigned in 2019.

— Amy Smart, The Canadian Press

RELATED: Former Speaker of B.C. legislature doesn’t recall retirement payout documents: trial