OTTAWA – Stephen Harper’s government is calling in the auditor general as it attempts to stamp out the political inferno raging over improper Senate expenses.
Sen. Marjory LeBreton, government leader in the upper chamber, intends to introduce a motion Tuesday calling on auditor general Michael Ferguson to conduct “a comprehensive audit of Senate expenses.”
“Canadians deserve to know at all times that their tax dollars are being spent wisely and in accordance with the law,” she said in a statement.
LeBreton called on Liberal Senate Leader James Cowan to support her motion.
“I see no reason why we would oppose it,” Cowan said in an interview.
Still, he added he wants to hear more about what LeBreton has in mind. He noted her statement refers to an audit of “Senate expenses,” which is not necessarily the same as auditing each individual senator’s expenses.
Moreover, he said he wouldn’t want to simply repeat an audit conducted by Ferguson last year into the administration of the Senate, including financial management and control polices. As part of that audit, the auditor general examined a representative sample of senators’ expense claims.
“I guess what I’m concerned about here is, Is this just another attempt to change the channel here?” Cowan said in an interview.
“The problem isn’t in the rules and policies. The problem is in people who want to scam the system. That’s the problem.”
However, LeBreton said she’s proposing to give the auditor general free rein to examine all aspects of Senate expenses, including all claims by individual senators if he so chooses.
“When I say a comprehensive audit of all Senate expenses, I mean everything,” LeBreton said in an interview.
That would allow Ferguson much broader scope than last year’s audit, in which LeBreton said the Senate’s internal economy committee “put some fences around what (Ferguson) could and could not do.
“I actually don’t think that’s proper. The auditor general should go where he wants to go.”
LeBreton acknowledged a comprehensive audit could reveal an even bigger scandal over invalid expense claims by senators – as happened in Nova Scotia several years ago when MLAs’ expenses were audited.
“Most senators … conduct themselves absolutely appropriately,” she said. “But those who haven’t, it may not be pleasant but people are the architects of their own actions, eh?”
With senators’ expenses put under the auditor general’s microscope, LeBreton said “there’ll be obviously pressure” on the House of Commons to allow similar scrutiny of MPs’ expenses.
LeBreton’s motion is the latest Conservative effort to damp down the spreading scandal, which has become a staple of question period in the Commons.
Last week, the Conservative-dominated Senate adopted tougher rules on travel and other expense claims. The chamber also agreed to call on the RCMP to investigate Sen. Mike Duffy’s expense claims.
Duffy’s problems began with improper claims for housing expenses but have since expanded to include dubious travel and living-expense claims, and an explosive “gift” of $90,000 given to him by Nigel Wright, the prime minister’s chief of staff, to reimburse the Senate for his invalid claims.
Ethics officers in both parliamentary chambers are examining the Wright-Duffy transaction, which is also being reviewed by the RCMP.
Last year’s audit foreshadowed the current controversy over senators’ expense claims.
Ferguson reported that in two of seven cases tested, there was insufficient documentation to determine whether senators had properly claimed an allowance for maintaining a secondary residence in the national capital.
He found similarly insufficient documentation to verify the propriety of some hospitality, travel and living-expense claims.
“Because some of the expense claim files do not always contain sufficient documentation, it is difficult for the (Senate) administration to clearly conclude that expenses are appropriate,” he said in the June 2012 report.
Meanwhile, Conservative MP John Williamson, a former communications director for Harper, introduced a private member’s bill Monday that would strip the parliamentary pension from any MP or senator convicted of a crime punishable by a maximum penalty of two years in prison.
“At the end of the day, there is always going to be some level of the honour system and individuals have to play by the rules and, if they don’t, I think the penalty, one of the penalties should be losing one’s pension going forward,” Williamson said.