Time to end self-policing of Senate expense accounts, Ferguson says in audit

OTTAWA — Auditor general Michael Ferguson called Canada’s Senate to account Tuesday, urging “transformational change” in the upper chamber, including independent oversight of spending to encourage greater respect for taxpayer dollars.

Ferguson’s long-awaited 116-page report, released Tuesday, finds numerous cases in which senators filed expense claims that appeared to turn a blind eye to the potential cost to the public purse.

“Senators often did not prioritize consideration of the cost to taxpayers,” Ferguson’s report says.

It says senators should not be policing their own spending, and cites examples in which some members were charging taxi fares and custom holiday greeting cards to taxpayers when there were cheaper options available.

In one case, Ferguson found a senator’s cellphone was being used by another person in another location, while a staffer in the same office was sending personal text messages. Combined cost to taxpayers: $1,534.

In another, the former Speaker of the Senate charged taxpayers $5,663 to go to his brother-in-law’s funeral, saying he only made the trip to northern Ontario because of his position in the upper chamber.

A number of senators weren’t considering the taxpayer when filing claims, Ferguson’s report said. A number of senators chose customized holiday greeting cards rather than the Senate’s standard card, he said — an extra cost of at least $30,000.

“There needs to be change in the Senate; not just the rules and procedures, but also the culture,” government Senate leader Claude Carignan acknowledged in a news conference after the report was tabled.

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

All of the Senate’s members are fully committed “to transform the Senate into an institution Canadians can respect,” he added.

Other examples of questionable spending cited in the report include:

— Thousands of dollars for taxis around Ottawa when there was no reason to take them;

— One senator charged taxpayers for flights for staff to attend events at the senator’s B.C. home that included four partisan events; another flew staff to Toronto to attend the launch of a book co-edited by the senator.

— Senators charging for personal flights, in one case, to take part in a fishing trip.

Spending oversight should be delegated to an independent body, Ferguson recommends.

The report says senators will be seen as looking out for their own interests so long as they are in charge of writing their own spending rules and adjudicating their own expense disputes.

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.

The Canadian Press