Former Liberal MLA gets $140,000 government job to study earthquake preparedness

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VICTORIA — Former Liberal MLA John Les’s $140,000 new government job to study earthquake preparedness is an “outrageous” use of public funds and a patronage appointment that should be scrapped, critics charged Tuesday.

Justice Minister Suzanne Anton’s announcement of the contract, which is part of a study into the province’s earthquake readiness, was quickly overshadowed by questions over whether she was awarding a lucrative gig to a Liberal friend.

“Mr. Les has the experience of being a former solicitor general and also his municipal experience,” said Anton. “That dual experience makes him extremely valuable to this project.”

Les, who was MLA from 2001 to 2009 and is also a former mayor of Chilliwack, will co-chair the earthquake study with Henry Renteria, a former director of the California Office of Emergency Services.

Both men will be paid hourly, with Les to a maximum of $140,000 and Renteria to a maximum of $100,000, said Anton.

Anton refused to say if there had been an open competition for the contracts, or if government considered anyone else but Les.

“I hope the public will look at it the way I look at it, that (Les) is an expert in this area,” said Anton. “He’s a very valuable commodity. A very valuable person to do this.”

Opposition critic Shane Simpson scoffed at the claim.

“Absolutely nothing makes him an expert in earthquake preparedness,” said Simpson. “This is simply the case of somebody else who was a Liberal minister, an insider in the government, coming back to get $200,000 of patronage. It’s outrageous.”

Les said he was approached by a deputy minister and offered the job. His compensation, about $125 an hour, is “very much in the ballpark” for that kind of work, and others bill even more, said Les.

He said his solicitor general experience and local government experience make him well suited for the job.

Les has been drawing upon an MLA transitional allowance, which pays retiring or defeated MLAs their $101,859 annual salary for 15 months after leaving office.

He said he’ll stop taking that money and begin his earthquake report salary. Les is also entitled to $60,000 in per diem as chairman of the farm industry review board, which he was appointed to by government last October.

And he’s entitled to a pension — estimated by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation at $48,290 a year — but said he’s yet to begin receiving it.

“Forget about going into politics, the real money is in getting out of politics,” said Jordan Bateman, B.C. director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

“If most politicians realized their post-political career was going to be this lucrative they’d jump out of politics in a heartbeat. His pay now will be twice what he made as a backbench MLA.”

The earthquake study will produce a final report later this year on how to improve the province’s management in the case of a disaster.

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