June 9, 2013 10:34 am
Updated: June 10, 2013 7:22 pm

Trudeau defends Sen. Mac Harb in Senate spending scandal

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OTTAWA – Beleaguered Sen. Mac Harb will have a place back in the Liberal caucus, so long as he pays his dues once an investigation into his expense claims wraps up, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau says.

Harb resigned from the Liberal caucus last month after an independent audit found he wrongly collected $51,500 in Senate housing allowances. He consequently hired a lawyer, determined to fight the finding in court. Meanwhile, Harb could be asked to repay thousands beyond the initial assessment as the spending review stretches farther into his past.

But once the dust settles, Trudeau will welcome the Chretien appointee back with open arms.

“Yes, absolutely,” Trudeau said in an interview on the Global News program The West Block with Tom Clark when asked about Harb’s future with the Liberals. “For me, there’s a real difference between what Mac Harb is going through and what Senators Duffy and Wallin seem to have on their plate.”

WATCH: Justin Trudeau defends Mac Harb on The West Block

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Both Duffy and Wallin resigned from the Conservative caucus for similar reasons. Duffy stepped out under a cloud of controversy after it was revealed the prime minister’s then-chief of staff cut a cheque for $90,172 so the senator could repay claimed Senate allowances he to which he was not entitled.

Wallin resigned from caucus one day later, in the midst of an independent audit into her housing and travel expenses, the results of which have yet to come out. She has reportedly already returned $38,000, but that number could increase significantly as the investigation go on.

The Senate has asked the RCMP to launch an investigation into the spending scandal. Depending on their findings, Trudeau could change his tune on Harb.

“If the RCMP, which is now looking into the issue, decides it’s a problem, then of course there will be stiffer consequences,” he said, describing Harb’s situation, as opposed to that of Duffy or Wallin, as “an honest mistake or a misunderstanding of the rules.”

In a statement released Sunday evening, Government House Leader Peter Van Loan described Trudeau’s position on Harb as a “lapse in judgement.

“Senator Mac Harb is refusing to repay over $50,000 in inappropriate claimed housing allowances and, instead, is trying to stick taxpayers with the bill,” he wrote in the statement.

As questions about expenses and entitlements continue to swirl around the upper chamber, Trudeau took the question of transparency to the House of Commons last week when he called for parliamentarians to start posting expense claims online for all Canadians to view and scrutinize.

His four-point plan would require parliamentarians to submit quarterly details of their travel and hospitality claims, in much the same way ministers do.

The Liberal leader said his caucus will begin doing so by autumn, and hopes members in other parties will follow suit.

As it stands, MPs submit expense claims to the House of Commons financial staff. The guidelines for spending reports come from the Board of Internal Economy, a rather secretive committee that includes members from all parties, holds all meetings behind closed doors and doesn’t post detailed meeting minutes.

NDP House Leader Nathan Cullen, who sits on the board, says that while he appreciates Trudeau’s suggestions and might consider them, he’s more interested in working with other members of the board, so all parties have a say in any new measures.

The Board of Internal Economy is expected to release updated guidelines this week that will provide more details on how MPs spend their budgets, Cullen said.

“We’re going to get more detail in the coming months on MPs’ salaries, so that Canadians can go online and click a link and find out what we’re spending on travel, on hospitality, on hotels, on our staffing. That kind of thing,” he said in an interview.

However, Cullen cautioned, increasing transparency could come with a financial burden and heftier bureaucracy.

A small handful of MPs who in the past posted their expenses ended up using nearly half of their staff time doing so, he said.

Although ministers already post details on airfare, food and accommodation, for example, their offices have more staff than that of an MP.

“If we’re going to have that greater level of accountability, we’re going to have to spend more money, frankly, on the admin side of things, which is something we’re totally open to,” Cullen said. “We’re not going to put that up as a barrier.”

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