It may have been frowned upon before, but it’s now officially against legislature rules for MLAs to make money by renting out their taxpayer-subsidized apartments.
On Thursday morning, Alberta’s Members Services Committee unanimously approved a motion that prevents any MLA from using a company or third party to help him or her rent out their place.
“I guess this may go down in history as the Fildebrandt rule,” said Alberta Party leader Greg Clark after the vote.
Last month, it was revealed that former UCP finance critic Derek Fildebrandt had his Edmonton apartment on several sharing sites including AirBnB.
MLAs from outside the Capital Region are entitled to a housing allowance of up to $1,930 per month. Between January and March, Fildebrandt claimed $7,720 for housing. He claims he also made $2,555 from renting out the subsidized apartment.
The revelation outraged many Albertans and elected officials from all parties. However, the practice did not specifically violate any rule until now.
On Thursday, UCP interm leader Nathan Cooper introduced the motion that banned using companies to rent out taxpayer-subsidized accommodations.
“It’s important that not just the members know but Albertans know that their dollars are going to be spent well,” Cooper said.
It’s a position the NDP backed.
“What we did today was make it clear that nothing like this is going to occur again,” Estefania Cortes-Vargas said.
Clark is happy the change was made but he doesn’t think it closes enough loopholes.
The motion only prevents MLAs using companies or third parties to help rent apartments. It does not specifically prevent MLAs from personally profiting.
Clark suggested there’s nothing in the new rules keeping an MLA from finding renters on his own without using AirBnB or some other company.
“It’s not perfect but we got there,” said Clark. “I would’ve liked to see something more likely to stand the test of time.”
Committee members were hesitant to pass any new rules that may would deal with the broader issues. They add this is only the first step towards reforming MLA expense rules.
The Members Services Committee also voted to empower a sub-committee to study many different expense claim scenarios and look at what penalties may be needed. The sub-committee would return with recommendations.
Cortes-Vargas said that process will take time.
“Families come to the legislature now. Sometimes that means if you have a baby, you might need a babysitter. You might need a grandmother that’s staying there. Does that constitute income?” asked Cortes-Vargas. “I think that’s what the sub-committee is doing; addressing those questions and playing out those scenarios.”
MLAs also acknowledged Albertans would be upset if they didn’t close the Air BnB loophole, immediately. That’s why the UCP motion was approved.
Clark wanted more but he’s happy. Given the public outcry after the Fildebrandt revelations, he doubts any MLA will soon test the limits of whatever rule is in place.
“Given the scrutiny on this thing, it would really surprise me if anybody would rent out their apartment or condo and then claim that money back,” said Clark. “If they do, there would be a huge political price to pay.”
Fildebrandt has paid a heavy political price. Days after the AirBnB scandal came to light, other documents showed he double dipped on meal expenses a handful of times. Days after that, court documents were found showing he had been accused of leaving the scene of an accident outside of his Edmonton home.
Fildebrandt has left the UCP caucus and sits as an independent.
At first he defended his decision to rent out his apartment on AirBnB but later apologized. He has offered to donate the money he made on the rentals to help pay down the provincial debt.
The trial for his leaving the scene of an accident charge is over. Fildebrandt claims he wasn’t in the truck that fled the scene. A decision in that case is expected on Dec. 18.