OTTAWA – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says it has not been a waste of money for the RCMP to investigate senators flagged with problematic expense claims by the auditor general and then decide not to lay charges.
Senate sources confirmed that 24 of the 30 senators named in the June report have been informed that the evidence against them didn’t warrant a full criminal investigation.
Trudeau said the Mounties’ probing of questionable Senate expenses pointed to a need for more transparency in the upper chamber even if none will be criminally charged.
“The travails that the Senate and senators went through over the past years highlighted the need for greater transparency, greater openness, greater accountability and indeed a distancing from partisanship and the patronage that has defined the Senate over recent years and indeed decades,” Trudeau told reporters at the United Nations in New York.
The Liberals have set up a body of outside experts to recommend appointments to the Senate, which now has 24 vacant seats and a baker’s dozen of independents, including five who have left their party caucuses since the October election over concerns about partisanship getting in the way of them doing their jobs.
Trudeau said the plan would end up overhauling the Senate and turn it into a place “that actually examines” legislation in a “much less partisan way.”
“That is what we’re committed to, that is what we’re going to do and the various investigations and concerns and issues highlighted have led us to a place where I think we’re on the right track,” Trudeau said.
The Mounties began looking at the expense claims of the 30 current and former senators shortly after auditor general Michael Ferguson released his critical review of Senate spending in early June.
At the time, they were not full-fledged investigations — they were only reviews to see if there was enough evidence to proceed.
The RCMP began informing the Senate during the federal election that it would not pursue criminal investigations against some of the senators named in the report. Senate sources said the first message came in September when the RCMP said a review of 18 senators showed none warranted further investigation and informed the upper chamber that those senators could be told their files were closed.
Six more senators were added to that list in the following months, leaving six more whose fates are still in the hands of the RCMP.
Among the list of cases closed is independent Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu, Conservative Senate leader Claude Carignan, and Conservative Leo Housakos, chairman of the internal economy committee. The Canadian Press was unable to verify the remaining senators who have been cleared.
The RCMP wouldn’t comment directly Wednesday on the Senate reviews, saying only that it would only confirm an investigation if it laid charges.
Ferguson’s audit identified almost $1 million in problematic expenses that should be repaid, detailed a litany of oversight issues in how the Senate managed expense claims and called for “transformative change” to fix systemic problems in the upper chamber. Ferguson recommended nine senators, including two sitting senators — Liberal Colin Kenny and Boisvenu, who was appointed by former prime minister Stephen Harper — be referred to the RCMP for criminal review. He named 21 more with expense claims that were problematic.
All 30 senators named in the audit were ordered to repay the questioned amounts, with the most recent details on the Senate’s website showing that 14 went through an arbitration process led by former Supreme Court justice Ian Binnie, seven opted out of it, and the remaining nine paying back their full bill.
Binnie’s final report is to be made public next week after senators on the internal economy committee, which oversees Senate spending, meet to look over the report.
Senators with whom Binnie sides will not have to pay back any money to the Senate. Those against whom Binnie rules will be forced to pay the money back.
The Senate sent repayment bills this week to seven senators who opted against the arbitration process.
The Senate has previously said that those sitting senators who refuse repayment will have their salaries clawed back, similar to how the Senate withheld Sen. Patrick Brazeau’s salary until he had repaid the approximately $49,000 in ineligible housing claims. Retired senators who refuse to pay will be taken to court by the upper chamber.
Meanwhile, the RCMP has not informed Sen. Pamela Wallin as to the status of her investigation, which has been open now for over two years. Wallin’s lawyer, Terrence O’Sullivan, said Wednesday neither he nor Wallin has heard from the Mounties.