UPDATE: Long-fought audit of MP and senators expenses released

The Canadian Press
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OTTAWA — The auditor general pulled back the curtain on politicians’ spending by only a few inches Wednesday, giving Canadian taxpayers only the faintest of glimpses at how MPs and senators spend their money.

Anyone hoping to learn details about any exorbitant spending by parliamentarians was likely disappointed by a pair of process-heavy audits of some $500 million in Senate and House of Commons expenses.

Auditor General Michael Ferguson focused his gaze on on whether politicians followed the proper spending rules; his reports did not look at individual office management nor the merits of specific MP spending decisions.

All in all, the audits amounted to a polite reminder to MPs and senators to properly fill out their expense claims.

He found a handful of cases where expense claims were missing supporting documents. That made it difficult for the auditors to tell if the claims were valid.

For example, one unnamed senator submitted a travel claim for a trip to Washington, D.C., without providing any details beyond stating that it was for parliamentary business.

When it came to House of Commons procurement, however, the audit found problems.

Forty-one of the 59 procurements the audit looked at did not comply with the House of Commons Administration’s own rules. There were unsigned contracts or contracts signed retroactively, missing paperwork and no rationale for sole-sourced contracts.

“This result points to a widespread lack of compliance,” the audit says.

“In our opinion, these deficiencies were due to a lack of guidance, inconsistent application of controls, and high turnover in senior positions.”

The terms of the two audits, launched in 2010 after public pressure forced parliamentarians to relent and permit the investigation, ensure that the reports don’t name any specific MPs or senators.

That was the concession parliamentarians managed to wring out of former auditor general Sheila Fraser in exchange for a chance to look at their books. The audits will not look at individual office management nor the merits of specific MP spending decisions.

“Our objective is to determine whether the House has sound management processes and key administrative systems and practices,” Fraser said in June 2010.

“If we see that there is total disregard for the rules, obviously we would extend our testing and do more in-depth work.”

Fraser said she wasn’t interested in nickel-and-diming politicians.

“I’ve heard people talking about a $4 cup of coffee. I’ve got, quite frankly, better things to do than look for $4 cups of coffee,” she said at the time.

Fraser has since retired and been replaced by Ferguson.

The work has been a long time coming.

Fraser was repeatedly denied the right to do such an audit by parliament’s powerful, all-party Board of Internal Economy. But in the spring of 2010, a massive public outcry erupted over politician spending scandals in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador and Britain.

A provincial audit in Nova Scotia turned up evidence of public money spent on power generators, custom-made furniture, TVs and other electronic goods. That scandal is still reverberating, with former Liberal MLA Dave Wilson sentenced to nine months in jail this April and ordered to repay nearly $61,000 he defrauded to feed a gambling addiction.

A 2006 audit in Newfoundland found millions of questionable dollars wasted by all three parties, including $2.6 million spent on lapel pins, fridge magnets and other trinkets over a period of years.

And British newspapers had a field day in 2009 after a detailed list of spending irregularities by MPs was leaked, culminating with charges against a number of British parliamentarians.

Douglas Hogg became one of the highest-profile British MPs to get caught up in the scandal for claiming expenses for the cleaning of a moat at his 13th-century home. He ended up repaying the cost, even though he did not break any rules with his moat-cleaning claim.

More recently at home, former Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe was called before the Board of Internal Economy in February over allegations he broke the rules by paying a partisan political staffer’s salary with parliamentary funds. Duceppe denies the allegations.

In such an atmosphere, described by one Conservative cabinet member as a “campaign of misinformation,” MPs on Parliament Hill could no longer resist the auditor general’s long-standing request to audit their spending.

Former Liberal MP Michelle Simson even published her office budget and expenses on her website, the first federal politician to do so.

A Canadian Press Harris-Decima poll in the spring of 2010 found that four out of five respondents believed MPs were breaking the rules on expenses, and 85 per cent expressed concern about Parliament stonewalling the audit request.

••••

OTTAWA — Anyone hoping to learn details about exhorbitant spending by federal MPs or senators may be sorely disappointed later today when the auditor general releases audits of some $500 million in Senate and House of Commons expenses.

The terms of the two audits, launched in 2010 after public pressure forced parliamentarians to relent and permit the investigation, ensure that the reports don’t name any specific MPs or senators.

That was the concession parliamentarians managed to wring out of former auditor general Sheila Fraser in exchange for a chance to look at their books. The audits will not look at individual office management nor the merits of specific MP spending decisions.

“Our objective is to determine whether the House has sound management processes and key administrative systems and practices,” Fraser said in June 2010.

“If we see that there is total disregard for the rules, obviously we would extend our testing and do more in-depth work.”

Fraser said she wasn’t interested in nickel-and-diming politicians.

“I’ve heard people talking about a $4 cup of coffee. I’ve got, quite frankly, better things to do than look for $4 cups of coffee,” she said at the time.

Fraser has since retired and been replaced by Michael Ferguson, who will deliver the two audits this afternoon.

The work has been a long time coming.

Fraser was repeatedly denied the right to do such an audit by parliament’s powerful, all-party Board of Internal Economy. But in the spring of 2010, a massive public outcry erupted over politician spending scandals in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador and Britain.

A provincial audit in Nova Scotia turned up evidence of public money spent on power generators, custom-made furniture, TVs and other electronic goods. That scandal is still reverberating, with former Liberal MLA Dave Wilson sentenced to nine months in jail this April and ordered to repay nearly $61,000 he defrauded to feed a gambling addiction.

A 2006 audit in Newfoundland found millions of questionable dollars wasted by all three parties, including $2.6 million spent on lapel pins, fridge magnets and other trinkets over a period of years.

And British newspapers had a field day in 2009 after a detailed list of spending irregularities by MPs was leaked, culminating with charges against a number of British parliamentarians.

Douglas Hogg became one of the highest-profile British MPs to get caught up in the scandal for claiming expenses for the cleaning of a moat at his 13th-century home. He ended up repaying the cost, even though he did not break any rules with his moat-cleaning claim.

More recently at home, former Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe was called before the Board of Internal Economy in February over allegations he broke the rules by paying a partisan political staffer’s salary with parliamentary funds. Duceppe denies the allegations.

In such an atmosphere, described by one Conservative cabinet member as a “campaign of misinformation,” MPs on Parliament Hill could no longer resist the auditor general’s long-standing request to audit their spending.

Former Liberal MP Michelle Simson even published her office budget and expenses on her website, the first federal politician to do so.

A Canadian Press Harris-Decima poll in the spring of 2010 found that four out of five respondents believed MPs were breaking the rules on expenses, and 85 per cent expressed concern about Parliament stonewalling the audit request.

Speaking after his party’s caucus meeting, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said he’s confident in the thoroughness of the audits.

“The auditor general always does a very serious job and ensures that the rules that apply to us are complied with,” Mulcair said.

“And you can be sure that if there’s a problem, it will be in his report.”

 

 

Organizations: Senate and House of Commons, Board of Internal Economy, Bloc Quebecois Canadian Press Harris-Decima

Geographic location: OTTAWA, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador

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  • Discusted
    June 13, 2012 - 16:35

    $2.6 million on lapel pins and magnets and the Janeway has to hold a telethon to puchase life saving diagnostic equipment? I wonder how these politicians sleep at night?