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Russell Wangersky: Debt still mounting from constituency spending scandal

The accountants never forget.

I mean, most of the province has probably moved on. Many couldn’t even tell you just what year it was when members of the House of Assembly were caught with their hand in the cookie jar, in the free-for-all known as the constituency allowance spending scandal. Some might not even remember that it happened at all.

I can tell you when it was: from early 1989 to early 2006, MHAs — at least as far as their expenses were concerned — lived the unexamined life. They submitted expense claims that were reviewed and paid by fellow MHAs with no oversight whatsoever, buying liquor, art, clothes, and doing other dodgy things like submitting expense claims for travel that was never taken.

The argument for the lack of scrutiny? That it would be a breach of the “honourable” members’ privilege to have lowly bureaucrats auditing the spending of their betters.

Some MHAs were convicted and went to jail — scores were made to pay back expenses they should never have been able to claim in the first place.

Some offered up repayments as soon as they were told about the problems with their claims.

And some, well, some didn’t.

The province’s Public Accounts are a long and often boring set of documents. It regularly runs to four volumes, hundreds of pages of the fiscal picture of the province, almost always available close to seven months after the end of the fiscal year.

This year’s pile came out recently, and if your eyes don’t glaze over, there’s always an interesting entry or two.

And that’s what the constituency allowance scandal is reduced to now — a single entry of accounting text.

You could call it a “faint hope” posting — it’s on page 110, in Schedule A, a place where the province lists “Accounts and Taxes Receivable.”

Money, in other words, that the government expects to be able to recover. It’s under the heading of “Amounts due as a result of Constituency Allowance review,” and it’s something I hadn’t seen before.

Some money has found its way back to the treasury.

Three former MHAs apparently made payments during fiscal 2016-17 on constituency allowances they’d improperly received: one paid $24,548, another managed $11,103, and the third paid a mighty $250.

The impact of those payments?

Well, MHA No. 1 owed $151,882, and was charged interest at around two per cent, adding $3,154 to the total. That MHA’s payment of $24,548 brought the indebtedness down to $130,489.

MHA No. 2 owes $90,644, and had interest of $1,857 added to the total — post the $11,103 payment, and the total owed shrank to $81,399.

MHA No. 3, who paid all of $250 during that fiscal year, saw every single bit of that payment eaten up by $7,589 in interest charges on the $336,684 being carried at the start of the year, and at the end of the year owed $344,023.

Those, however, might be considered the good guys. After all, at least some payments were made on their long-delinquent accounts.

Because there’s an awful lot of money that hasn’t found its way back.

The grand total of money outstanding for more than a decade now is $2.7 million — money improperly spent by MHAs and reimbursed by taxpayers…

According to numbers from the provincial Finance Department, there’s an additional $2,144,589 in outstanding constituency allowance money that the offending “honourable” MHAs have paid nothing on.

And what kind of message is that, exactly?

The grand total of money outstanding for more than a decade now is $2.7 million — money improperly spent by MHAs and reimbursed by taxpayers, many of whom were in far less privileged positions than those who still haven’t paid back their ill-gotten gains.

Hopefully, the interest will continue to accrue, and the provincial government will attach assets and recover the cash, just like they would if you or I failed to pay our income taxes.

Hopefully, year by year, the money will keep coming back until every last cent is paid.

But think about this: at the rate it’s coming back now, the money being recovered isn’t even covering the interest costs of the funds still outstanding. In other words, at this rate, the debt can only grow.

The accountants don’t forget.

We shouldn’t either.

And if anyone should pay their debts to the province, it’s those who set and enforce the rules on all the rest of us.

 

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 35 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at rwanger@thetelegram.com — Twitter: @wangersky.

 

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