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Conservative Sen. Don Plett defends expenses in AG report

WATCH: Several prominent senators have come forward to pay what the auditor says they owe. As Mike Le Couteur reports, others are fighting the auditor’s conclusion that they misspent taxpayer money.

OTTAWA —While on vacation in Calgary, Conservative Sen. Don Plett says he got a call from then-public safety minister Vic Toews asking him to fly to Ottawa and meet with the commissioner of Correctional Services of Canada.

The Manitoba senator got on a direct flight the next day and later filed an expense claim for the entire cost of the trip.

Plett says that was fair play. The Office of the Auditor General says otherwise.

“The auditor general came along and said I should have flown home on my own time, at my own cost, and then taken a flight from [my home in] Winnipeg to Ottawa,” Plett said in an interview Monday.

The discrepancy has the senator on the hook for $715 and named in the long-awaited report into Senate spending.

“They’re saying that trip cost $715 more than it would have from Winnipeg,” he said.

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Overall, the auditors on Plett’s file flagged $4,095 in questionable expenses —almost $3,000 of which Plett and his administrative assistants highlighted for the auditors as they were preparing the file, the senator said.

READ MORE: Housakos, Cowan repay Senate expenses, deny wrongdoing

He repaid those claims without hesitation. But Plett said he won’t roll over on the remaining $1,120, more than half of which arises from the 2011 trip to Ottawa from Calgary.

“Official business means public business that has been authorized by the Senate or a committee of the Senate or requested by a minister of the Crown,” Plett said, reading from a guidebook that was current in 2011, when he expensed the trip in question.

“I feel very strongly that travel at the request of a minister of the Crown clearly is Senate business.”

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The balance of the sum Plett is contesting arises from two stopovers in Montreal he took while travelling to Ottawa from Winnipeg.

While in Montreal on both occasions, he said, he met with “stakeholders on Senate matters” for a couple of hours then continued to Ottawa where he was either in his office or sitting at committee meetings. According to Plett, his calendar proves this.

But the auditors said they didn’t have enough proof he was on Senate business, so are asking him to repay the per diems claimed while in Montreal and in Ottawa, Plett explained.

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It would be “easy enough” to repay the money, Plett said, but it’s not the amount; it’s the principle.

In his case, Plett said he believes the auditors relied on interpretations of Senate rules when they should have taken time to find out what the rules were intended to enforce.

In the instance with his flight from Calgary, the auditors told Plett he wasn’t “honouring the spirit” of the rules.

“Well I’m not sure that an outsider can come in and tell the Senate what the spirit of the rule was,” he said. “I think the people that made the rules would be the people to ask what the spirit or the intent of the law was.”

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Auditor General Michael Ferguson delivered his final report, two years in the making, to the Senate late last week.

The report has yet to become public, though leaks have been rampant for weeks.

Ferguson has described the forensic audit of more than 100 current and former senators as one of the most expensive the office has ever conducted.

Twenty-one of those audited, including three of the most powerful figures in the chamber, were found to have filed ineligible expenses worth thousands each.

READ MORE: Conservative senator resigns in wake of AG report

Expenses for another nine members, seven of who are now retired, were considered so egregious Ferguson recommended their files be referred to the RCMP for review.

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So far, only one senator, Conservative Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu has left his caucus to sit as an independent, a decision he said he took after finding out he’d be the subject of an RCMP investigation.

Ferguson’s report is scheduled to become public Tuesday afternoon.

– with files from Mike Le Couteur