February 13, 2014 8:40 pm
Updated: February 13, 2014 8:52 pm

Some senators not fully cooperating with auditor general

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Above: Many senators are not fully cooperating with the auditor general’s investigation of how they’ve spent taxpayers’ money. Jacques Bourbeau reports.

Several senators are refusing to sign a letter promising to fully cooperate with the auditor general in his unprecedented audit of each member of the upper chamber, Global News has learned.

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Liberal Senator Joseph Day said he believes the letter needs some adjustments before sending it back.

“I have to know why the auditor general needs the letter,” he said in an interview this week. “When you get a two- or three-page letter and say, ‘please sign it,’ if you’re doing your due diligence, you try to understand why it’s necessary.”

In November, Auditor General Michael Ferguson’s office sent each sitting senator a series of documents outlining how the audit team would tackle the sweeping review of their spending.

Those documents included a letter, written in the voice of a senator, agreeing to give the auditor general access to a slew of documents including those held by third parties and any to which solicitor-client privilege, or any other privilege, is attached.

Each senator was asked to return that letter, transcribed on their letterhead and signed, indicating their intention to comply with the audit process.

READ MORE: Timeline: Key dates in the evolution of the Senate expense-claim controversy

Three months later, the auditors are still waiting to receive full compliance from some.

Liberal Senator Terry Mercer, for example, said he returned the letter but is rejecting one aspect.

“No Canadian would expect anybody to waive solicitor-client privilege, and I’m not going to,” he said.

Mercer, from Nova Scotia, is regularly listed as one of the senators who racks up the most in travel expenses.

Another senator, who did not want to be identified, said one of his colleagues told the auditor general they would “only respond to questions in writing.”

“No Canadian would expect anybody to waive solicitor-client privilege, and I’m not going to.”

– Liberal Senator Terry Mercer

That senator did not respond to an email asking to confirm or deny the claim.

Government leader in the Senate Claude Carignan said he returned the letter unchanged, but added he understands if some of his peers haven’t yet.

READ MORE: RCMP formally charge Brazeau, Harb with fraud, breach of trust over Senate expenses

“In the letter they ask a couple of [questions] about professional secrets, so I understand that some senators want to have more information … they need to have a couple of days of reflection,” he said.

The letter from Ferguson’s office was dated Nov. 12.

Carignan said the slow response from some senators does not raise any concerns for him.

“Everything will be OK,” he said. “I don’t expect any problems.”

Global News reached out to all 93 sitting senators over the past week, asking whether they had signed and returned the letter from Ferguson’s office.

“They need to have a couple of days of reflection.”

– Government leader in the Senate Claude Carignan

Twenty-four said they signed and returned the letter without any revisions; four either said they sent a signed letter to the auditor general but wouldn’t divulge its contents, or admitted to changing parts of the letter; 18 deferred the question to the auditor general or said they have not sent any correspondence back; 48 senators did not respond.

Ten of the 14 Conservative senators who deferred the question to Ferguson’s office did so through near-identical form letters.

“Thank you for your enquiry,” emails from several senators read. “The audit of the Senate is being conducted by Mr. Ferguson, the Auditor General of Canada. Any questions you may have concerning his audit should be directed to Mr. Ferguson or his office.”

Carignan said he did not instruct any of his caucus colleagues to respond a certain way.

READ MORE: Suspended senators targeted in federal budget 

The auditor general’s office acknowledged not all senators have signed and returned the letters.

“We will not speculate on the consequences, as we are in the process of following-up with the senators who have not yet answered,” a spokesman from the office wrote. “We expect senators to provide the information we need to do the audit.”

A source familiar with the workings of the auditor general’s office told Global News any refusal to sign the letter will not lead to a cancellation of the audit.

Without a senator’s full cooperation, the auditing team may not be able to explore every nook and cranny of their spending habits.

If the auditor general’s office does hit any such road blocks, it would likely come out in a report, the source said.

Similar letters are routinely sent to government departments subject to an audit, though the relationship and protocol between federal departments and the auditor general has been developed over years.

Members of the Senate’s internal economy committee voted last June to invite Ferguson’s office to audit senators’ expenses. The call came as the upper chamber was awash in controversy, after Senators Mac Harb, Patrick Brazeau, Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin had their living, housing and travel expenses subject to an independent audit.

Following the independent reviews, the Senate ordered the four senators repay hundreds of thousands of dollars in wrongly collected expenses.

Late last year, Senators Wallin, Duffy and Brazeau were suspended from the upper chamber, retaining little but their titles; they each lost their paycheques, office resources and some benefits at least until the end of the Parliamentary session, scheduled to end in the fall of 2015.

Harb resigned from the Senate in August, not long before Conservative leadership in the upper chamber moved to suspend his colleagues.

Below is a transcription of the letter Ferguson’s office sent to each senator and asked be returned and signed.

I, as a Senator, for the Senate of Canada will comply with any request that you or your staff make for access to relevant documents that relate to my position as a Senator and to the audit objectives determining whether my expenses and other transactions were incurred for Parliamentary business with due regard for the use of public funds under my control, including documents to which solicitor-client privilege or any other privilege is attached.

I will also provide any necessary authorization for you to obtain access to relevant information held by third parties. 

Access to requested documents will normally be provided within five working days. 

Disclosure of such documents will be made as recognized under the Auditor General Act and will not constitute waiver or any privilege attached to disclosed documents.

I confirm that all information discussed or shared during the audit with me and my staff will be kept confidential until after the audit is completed.

I understand that I am permitted to discuss matters related to the audit with the Standing Committee on Internal Economy Budgets and Administration or its audit sub-committee.

I also accept responsibility for maintaining the confidentiality of protected and controlled documents provided to me for review and for returning them after the completion of the audit.

Finally, I have reviewed the Audit Plan Summary. I acknowledge responsibility as set out in the Audit Plan Summary under the section “responsibility,” and agree that the criteria set out in the documents are suitable as the basis for assessing whether the audit objective has been met.  

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