Tory leadership candidate Gary Mar took a $478,499 MLA severance after he left office in 2007 -a payment he had pledged to defer, but cashed in not long after jumping directly into a $200,000-plus posting as Alberta’s representative in Washington, D.C.
He was entitled to the payment and didn’t break any rules, but spending watchdogs and opposition MLAs are accusing Mar of doubledipping on the taxpayer dime in a move loaded with poor optics and ethical issues.
Mar, who resigned this week as the provincial government’s Washington point man to join the Tory leadership race, said upon retiring as an MLA that he would defer his before-tax politician’s severance while he was in the $264,000-a-year U.S. posting.
But government documents show he took the severance in the 2008-09 fiscal year, early on in a Washington job he started in December 2007.
"I did say I would defer it to some point in the future. I didn’t say when," Mar explained in an interview. "It’s fully transparent and on public record."
The Calgary MLA from 1993 to 2007 said retiring politicians regularly take the transition allowance when they head into a private-sector job. Moving on to a senior government position within the provincial civil service shouldn’t be considered any different, he noted.
"The remuneration from both (MLA transition allowance and Washington job) is from separate and distinct roles," added Mar, who held senior cabinet posts in the Klein government.
But Wildrose Alliance MLA Rob Anderson -whose private member’s bill to reduce the size of the transition allowance by two-thirds was just defeated in the legislature -said Mar shouldn’t have been able to take the MLA severance if he was going straight into a senior government position.
"That seems to me that he’s double-dipping. And what’s worse is that here’s a guy who said he wouldn’t double-dip," Anderson said. "It’s just straight-up a golden parachute. And in Gary’s case, it’s a golden parachute onto a pillow-soft landing in Washington."
Mar was paid $264,069 annually in base salary in the Washington job -one of the most soughtafter positions in government -and also enjoyed a taxpayerfunded apartment and office at the Canadian Embassy on famous Pennsylvania Avenue.
But he also received nearly another $100,000 in cash and non-cash benefits, which took his total 2009-10 compensation (the latest available) to $362,776.
The job included an $8,000-a-month apartment, with Mar required to pay approximately $1,000 a month of his own money, as per government rules for foreign office staff.
Included in the annual noncash benefits during his tenure was the $193,656 it cost to send Mar’s three children to private schools for different periods while he was posted in the U.S., an average of $32,276 per child, per year. It’s a standard benefit also offered to other government employees serving abroad.
He won’t receive any severance for quitting his Washington job to run in the Progressive Conservative leadership race to replace Premier Ed Stelmach. Mar officially jumped into the contest Wednesday, joining Ted Morton, Doug Horner, Alison Redford and Doug Griffiths.
The severance payment is sparking more questions about Alberta’s lucrative so-called "transition allowance," which pays three months’ salary for every year served in the legislature, based on the three highestearning years, with no cap on the total payout.
Most public-and privatesector jobs pay between two and four weeks salary for each year employed, with a cap on the total amount.
MLAs also receive a $10,500 annual RRSP allowance and have one-third of their base salary tax free.
Anderson believes the entire MLA severance program should be scrapped, insisting the RRSP allowance is enough of a perk.
Scott Hennig, Alberta director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said it’s questionable whether Mar should have received the MLA severance while in his taxpayer-funded U.S. job because there was no actual transition into another career.
Taking the transition pay while in a senior government job produces poor optics, he said, something he figures Mar recognized and was the reason he didn’t initially take the cash.
"The rules are what the rules are -there are no rules," Hennig said. "If you say you’re not going to take it, you might want to stick with that."
The taxpayers federation also wants the MLA severance packaged eliminated, insisting the RRSP allowance is sufficient for provincial politicians.
NDP Leader Brian Mason said he doesn’t fault Mar for taking money rightfully owed to him, although he believes the province should consider suspending MLA severance payments to retired politicians heading into government jobs.
"He’s legally entitled to it," Mason said. "His commitment not to take it was broken, and that’s for the voters to decide."