Ex-legislature clerk Craig James found guilty of breach of trust and fraud under $5,000

Craig James cleared of three allegations but guilty on two counts

Craig James | Photo: Darren Stone/Times Colonist

Former Clerk of the Legislative Assembly of B.C. Craig James has been found guilty in B.C. Supreme Court of breach of trust and fraud under $5,000.

Associate Chief Justice Heather Holmes ruled May 19 that James was guilty of breach of trust by a public official for purchasing personal clothing with public funds. He was also found guilty of fraud for submitting claims and receiving reimbursement for those clothes, which were valued at over $1,800.

“Mr. James breached the standard of conduct in a serious and marked way, and he knew it would deprive the LABC of funds he ought not to have been reimbursed.  His purpose was a dishonest one, to benefit himself at the public’s expense.  The elements of breach of trust by a public official and fraud are proven beyond a reasonable doubt,” wrote Holmes.

James, the clerk from September, 2011 and November, 2018, was found not guilty on three other counts. Holmes determined he was not guilty of breach of trust allegations of improperly obtaining and keeping a $258,000 retirement benefit. James was also determined to be innocent of breach of trust and fraud allegations that he improperly purchased and used a wood splitter.

Crown prosecutors had alleged James used “public money as his personal slush fund of seemingly limitless depth” to pay for the likes of clothing, books, travel items and the wood splitter.

Holmes stated in her ruling “there is no question that the number of purchases was astonishing,” however for the most part, save for the clothing purchases, “the evidence does not establish beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. James was dishonest or in criminal breach of the standard of conduct.”

Holmes noted breach of trust requires an official intentionally breaching standards of responsibility while acting in duties of their office. Fraud, noted Holmes, involves knowingly committing a deceitful act that could lead to the deprivation of another (in this case the public).

Clothing purchases caught up to James

It was purchases of dress shirts and ties with public funds that were deemed criminal in nature, according to Holmes.

James, said Holmes, submitted false information on receipts, claiming the shirts were chamber attire while he ought to have known such shirts are not used for those purposes.

“On all the evidence, I have no doubt that Mr. James knew that his claim had been described in this misleading fashion when he signed and submitted it, even if he did not draft the description himself,” wrote Holmes.

James had defended the purchases by claiming he was anticipating a change in chamber attire policy.

But, “none of the witnesses knew of any such change, actual or pending, and there is no evidence that Mr. James referred to any such change in any of his claims for reimbursement.”

No proof James significantly used wood splitter

Among the contentious accusations that befell James was the purchase and alleged use of a wood splitter that was supposed to be for the legislature grounds but instead was stored at James’ home for nearly a year.

Holmes ruled the Crown failed to prove James intended to defraud the legislature.

James spearheaded the purchase of the splitter and a trailer for it and even picked it up in Aldergrove, according to the ruling. However, there was enough evidence to show the legislature grounds had no immediate parking place for it and so James had it stored at his home. Furthermore, there was no concrete evidence he used the splitter routinely.

And so, Holmes ruled “the evidence does not establish beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. James was activated by a self-serving or otherwise dishonest purpose, or that he knew his conduct was contrary to the duties of the office.”

And since there was no explicit intention to use the splitter — at least significantly — for personal purposes, there could be no finding of fraud, said Holmes.

James likely not entitled to retirement benefit: Judge

Holmes heard of how James orchestrated a $258,000 retirement benefit for himself and others.

The Crown argued James was not eligible for the benefit as it was created specifically for three table officers in 1984. And since he was involved in the determination of the payment, he was in breach of trust, the Crown alleged.

But James defended the payment, arguing he had received legal advice from Donald Farquhar Q.C., whom he hired to handle a retirement benefit for a departing officer.

Holmes was critical of James on this front.

“Without a doubt, Mr. James breached the standard of conduct expected of him in this regard by continuing to instruct Mr. Farquhar and to advise Speaker Barisoff when his own financial interests were at play – worse yet, expressly brought into play by his own inquiry,” wrote Holmes.

And, Holmes stated, “I conclude that Mr. James likely was not entitled to the long service award” (the retirement benefit).

However, while Holmes found Farquhar’s reasoning during his testimony “unpersuasive,” Holmes concluded “Mr. Farquhar’s advice may have led Mr. James to sincerely believe that he was entitled.  In those circumstances, together with all the other circumstances, the mens rea of the offence is not proven beyond a reasonable doubt,”

Holmes stated: “Nothing in the evidence indicated that Mr. James’s relationship with Mr. Farquhar was other than a regular professional one, or that it could in any way have been expected to influence the opinion Mr. Farquhar was likely to reach.”

The special Crown prosecutors were David Butcher and Brock Martland. Defence lawyers Gavin Cameron and Kevin Westell did not put forth a case (leaving it to prosecutors to form their case) before closing arguments in March.

James had pleaded not guilty to all five charges and elected a judge, not a jury, to run the trial.

James was escorted off the legislature's grounds by police in November 2018 following allegations of wrongdoing by then Speaker of the House Darryl Plecas. An independent investigation by retired Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Beverley McLachlin concluded James committed administrative misconduct. An RCMP investigation followed, leading to the criminal charges.

gwood@glaciermedia.ca