OTTAWA – There is little evidence backing up Conservative claims that the system used to keep a check on ministers’ expenses is either stringent or rigorous, according to a Global News investigation.
Cabinet ministers, many of whom travel extensively as part of their jobs, submit expense claims for airfare, accommodation, meals and other incidentals to senior bureaucrats within their own department for vetting.
If those bureaucrats find an erroneous or questionable expense, they are expected to return the claim to the minister, who is ultimately accountable for handling any questions about how they spend public money.
Global News submitted Access to Information requests to 10 federal departments asking for proof of “questioning, challenging or rejection” of the minister’s expense claims, going all the way back to February 2006, when the Conservatives first took office.
Of the nine departments that responded, eight, found no records – there is no evidence that anyone in those departments has, over the course of nearly seven years, rejected or challenged a single expense claim from a minister.
Included in that list is International Development, where former minister Bev Oda made taxpayers foot the bill for a long list of controversial charges, including limo rentals, hotel upgrades and damage fines at hotels.
The revelations have the opposition wondering whether departments are merely rubber stamping ministers’ expenses.
“We could accept one view that in all these departments, with all the massive amounts of travel, everything is so perfect that they never have to double-check anything,” said Charlie Angus, the NDP’s ethics critic. “The other possibility would be that they’re rubber stamping the ministerial expenses. That’s the concern.”
Only Fisheries and Oceans was able to provide evidence of staff looking over and questioning ministers’ expenses, although most questions involved a few dollars or less.
In one case, a bureaucrat encouraged then-minister Loyola Hearn’s staff to charge more. The minister “only claimed two days of meals and incidentals. Is this OK? He can claim for three days,” the bureaucrat wrote in an email.
The suggestion came as a bit of a surprise to Angus, who, like all MPs, files his expenses to House of Commons financial staff.
“I’ve got to say, I’ve never had the House of Commons tell me, ‘Hey, why aren’t you charging for your travel?’”
Finance Canada has not yet responded to Global’s Access to Information request.
No records were found at Human Resources, Heritage, National Defence, Aboriginal Affairs, Agriculture, Foreign Affairs, Public Works or International Development – the department responsible for approving claims from Oda, which had Canadians up in arms.
In 2010, Oda was handed a $250 fine for smoking cigarettes in her non-smoking hotel room in Washington. When she submitted that as an expense, it was approved.
Global’s request to International Development for instances where Oda’s claims were challenged or rejected was among those that came back empty.
She quietly paid the charge back two years later, before retiring from federal politics – but after the expense became a source of public scrutiny, spurred by reports of an extravagant trip to London that included a $16 glass of orange juice, also paid for by taxpayers.
The vetting process at International Development didn’t catch those controversial claims. And, according to the lack of information turned up in the information requests, the self-screening process doesn’t appear to be much tougher in other departments either.
“You’d think something would come up in the last six years,” said Stephen Taylor, director of the National Citizen’s Coalition, a right-leaning organization that advocates small government.
“It shows the government doesn’t seem to be either keeping those records, or maybe there is a rubber-stamp system happening.”
President of the Treasury Board Tony Clement, who is responsible for setting expense-filing guidelines for ministers, was not available for an interview, despite repeated requests.
His press secretary emailed a statement noting that the government “treats taxpayers’ money with the utmost respect,” and that spending in ministers’ offices has declined 16 per cent since the Conservatives took office in 2005-06.
But that statistic isn’t enough for the opposition.
As an MP, Angus says their vetting process is thorough — he has had his claims questioned on several occasions – and could easily be expanded to include cabinet ministers.
“I don’t have a problem when the House of Commons comes back and tells me something doesn’t look right,” he said. “That’s accountability. Ministers, they’re vetted by their department. And we’ve seen with Bev Oda … that there doesn’t seem to be the same level of accountability.”
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