August 13, 2013 4:45 pm
Updated: August 14, 2013 12:21 pm

Wallin audit reveals grey area in Senate expense claims

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OTTAWA – One question emerging from the audit into Sen. Pamela Wallin’s travel expenses is what exactly constitutes “Senate business.”

Following an independent audit, a Senate committee ordered Wallin, who left the Conservative caucus amid controversy earlier this year, to repay $121,348 in wrongly collected travel expenses within 30 days.

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“Senator Wallin’s claims have been made mainly with the purpose indicated as ‘Senate business,’” read the Deloitte audit of her claims from 2009 to 2012.

Wallin was able to see and respond to the audit Monday, a day before it was released publicly.

The Saskatchewan senator accepted the findings and agreed to repay the full amount plus interest – but also said the findings were the result of a “fundamentally flawed and unfair” process.

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed Wallin to the Senate in 2009, she said she was determined to advocate issues that matter to Canadians through public speeches and appearances.

Doing so was, and continues to be, a legitimate expense for the taxpayer to fund, she said Monday.

Since becoming a senator, Wallin has travelled to all corners of Canada as well as to New York City, Washington and Afghanistan.

According to Senate policies and rules, members of the upper chamber can request reimbursement for travel expenses if the travel was incurred as a consequence of “Parliamentary” or “Senate business.”

Documents show Wallin charged more than $300,000 for such travel over the course of just two years.

Some of the trips and meetings Wallin expensed include: meeting with an executive from Canada Post to discuss challenges facing the Crown corporation, a dinner meeting with representatives from Chatelaine and the New York City Ballet, a reception for the Toronto cultural and business communities at the home of a representative from the National Arts Centre, and an interview with a journalist for an article about Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall.

The Senate office that approves expense claims has no obligation to check a claim from a senator who says they were on official business – the onus is on each senator to make that determination.

But even if Senate Finance did double-check the claims, there is no strict delineation between what constitutes “personal” and “Senate” business.

“Senate resources shall not be used to fund travel that is incurred to pursue the private business or personal interests of a senator,” according to Senators’ Travel Policy, the document outlining rules regarding travel.

Pursuing personal interests may be considered public business, according to the document, but those interests are not necessarily related to a senator’s parliamentary functions.

The policy also states it allows funding for unpaid speaking engagements related to the work of the Senate or public interest.

Tuesday’s Deloitte report warned that Wallin’s were the only travel expenses audited of the 100 senators currently sitting in the upper chamber.

“As a result, we are not aware of the extent, if any, that expenses relating to activities similar to those identified in this report as being subject to reimbursement to the Receiver General may have been claimed by and reimbursed to other senators in previous years,” the report reads.

The New Democrat ethics critic Charlie Angus said he believes Wallin is not the only senator wrongly collecting travel reimbursements.

“You look at how many senators are sitting on the boards of all manner of big corporations, doing all manner of private business all the time,” he said. “And we’re to believe that with no oversight … that a number of them weren’t dipping into the taxpayer-funded free travel flights? I just find that hard to believe,” he told Global News.

According to the most recent quarterly reports published on the Senate website, nine senators have claimed more than $10,000 for “other travel,” which implies Senate business.

The reports cover the period between March 1 and May 31.

None of the nine senators returned requests sent Tuesday for details and comment on their expense claims.

Liberal leader in the Senate James Cowan said the work he and his colleagues do outside of the chamber is valuable, and should be expensed – within a limit.

“I think it’s important for senators to be involved in their community,” he said Tuesday. “I’ve taken a particular interest, for instance, in university research and post-secondary education. To be able to talk to people who have some experience in that area … I think informs my decision-making process, my ability to advocate for those kinds of things. ”

Cowan said there should be a line somewhere, but for a majority of his colleagues, determining what trips and meeting the taxpayer should or shouldn’t pay isn’t a challenge.

“I don’t think the problem is with the rules,” he said. “I think the problem is with the inability or unwillingness of some senators to abide by the letter and spirit of those rules.”

Earlier this year, Liberal Sen. James Munson said he claims travel expenses for his self-appointed role as an advocate for the rights of disabled children, saying public advocacy is part of a senator’s job.

His Liberal colleague Romeo Dallaire, on the other hand, said he keeps his frequent travels to Africa, where he travels for advocacy work, separate from his work in the Senate.

© 2013 Shaw Media

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