End self-policing of expense accounts, explosive Senate audit urges

OTTAWA — Family funerals, fishing trips, hockey games and enough cellphone roaming charges to make a telecom CEO blush: Canada’s auditor general laid bare the Senate’s expense-account excesses Tuesday as he called for independent oversight to teach the upper chamber some respect for the public purse.

Michael Ferguson’s 116-page report, released Tuesday, details a litany of expense claims that suggest a number of senators were oblivious to the costs they were racking up, or were otherwise cavalier in how they spent taxpayer dollars.

“I am struck by the overall lack of transparency and accountability around senators’ expenses, both at the level of the oversight exercised by the institution as a whole and at the level of some individuals,” Ferguson said.

“This is an institution whose members have not been required to be fully transparent about their spending or accountable to Canadians for that spending.”

Among the expenses Ferguson flagged:

— Some senators routinely claimed the cost of meals, even at events where meal options were made available; others expensed the cost of taking taxis for local trips easily covered on foot;

— Retired Conservative senator Donald Oliver expensed a flight for what the auditors say was a fishing trip;

— Former Speaker Noel Kinsella claimed $5,663 to attend his brother-in-law’s funeral in northern Ontario. His rationale? He only attended because he’s a senator.

Nine files have been referred to the RCMP for possible criminal investigation, including two sitting senators: Conservative Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu and Liberal Colin Kenny, who now face a probe by the Senate ethics officer. A further 17 senators will fight the findings of Ferguson’s report; depending on the result, they may be forced to repay thousands of dollars in dubious claims.

Senate leaders, facing what they have called a watershed moment for the upper chamber, vowed action on the report, but were less unequivocal when asked how long it would take to act on Ferguson’s recommendations.

The Senate will look at all the recommendations, “and we are going to institute all of them step-by-step,” said Speaker Leo Housakos.

“There needs to be change in the Senate; not just the rules and procedures, but also the culture,” added government Senate leader Claude Carignan.

“We will take quick and decisive action on the auditor general’s recommendations … we accept that there is work still to be done.”

The audit itself carries a price tag of $23.6 million, according to the auditor general’s office.

Some senators charged taxpayers to fly their staff around the country when they should have paid their own way.

In one case, a senator expensed flights for staff to attend events at the senator’s B.C. home that included four partisan events. In another, retired senator Vivienne Poy claimed $597 for staff to travel to Toronto to attend the launch of a book she helped to edit. Senate administration rejected Poy’s own claims for the same trip.

Ferguson found Liberal Sen. Nick Sibbeston’s cellphone was being used by someone else in a different location, while a staffer in the same office was using a work phone to send personal text messages. Combined cost to taxpayers: $1,534.

The report also found some members ordering custom holiday greeting cards when cheaper options were available, costing an extra $30,000 over two years compared with the generic cards provided by the Senate.

Senators should not be in charge of overseeing their own spending, Ferguson said. Otherwise, they’ll be seen as looking out for their own interests. The report recommends delegating spending oversight to an independent body.

Ferguson is also calling on the Senate to let his office audit expenses on a regular basis to ensure they don’t snowball into problem cases, such as the Senate saw with Pamela Wallin, Patrick Brazeau, Mac Harb and Mike Duffy.

Jordan Press, The Canadian Press