Critical audit outlines systemic issues in senators’ expense claims

Spending in the scandal-ridden, self-policing Senate is devoid of oversight and accountability, says an explosive audit of expenses that urges “transformative change” to fix systemic problems in the upper chamber.

OTTAWA — Spending in the scandal-ridden, self-policing Senate is devoid of oversight and accountability, says an explosive audit of expenses that urges “transformative change” to fix systemic problems in the upper chamber.

Michael Ferguson’s long-awaited examination of Senate expenses proposes nothing short of a complete overhaul of how spending is governed — sweeping changes that echo what the auditor general has been saying for years: parliamentarians should not be overseeing the spending of their peers.

Front and centre is retired Liberal senator Rod Zimmer and his disputed expense claims, which total $176,014 — including travel that auditors allege was for non-Senate business, and a housing allowance to which he wasn’t entitled.

Tinkering with expense rules in recent years has had little impact, says the report, which takes issue with a total of $976,627 in expense claims. Portions of the report were viewed by The Canadian Press.

“The weaknesses and problems uncovered in the course of this comprehensive audit of senators’ expenses call for a transformational change in the way expenses are claimed, managed, controlled, and reviewed,” Ferguson writes.

“Simply changing or adding to existing rules will not be enough. Improvements in oversight, accountability, transparency, and senators’ consideration for the cost to taxpayers are needed to resolve the issues that we have identified.”

The audit, to be made public Tuesday, recommends that an independent oversight body of experts be established to decide whether an expense claim falls inside or outside Senate rules.

It also calls for regular, outside audits of spending to promote “diligence and discipline” from senators, staff and the administration responsible for spending public dollars.

Such a system, the report says, would prevent problems from snowballing into those that have engulfed disgraced senators Pamela Wallin, Mike Duffy, Mac Harb or Patrick Brazeau.

The latter three are all facing criminal charges stemming from their Senate expenses; Duffy is currently standing trial on 31 charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery. He has pleaded not guilty. Wallin remains under RCMP investigation.

Ferguson’s report identifies $976,627 in questionable spending among 30 current and retired senators. Just five of those senators account for about $546,000 of the spending Ferguson identifies in the audit.

The audit, which reportedly cost nearly $21 million to conduct, reviewed more than 80,000 transactions worth about $180 million.

Nine senators, including Zimmer, were to be referred Friday to the RCMP for criminal review over problems with their travel and housing.

Zimmer disputes the findings, including $2,072 for taxis in Ottawa for him and his wife that appeared to be for personal reasons.

In a blistering written response to the audit, he accuses Ferguson of “appearing to be interfering in the judicial proceedings now taking place in the trial of Sen. Duffy, where the issue of residency … (is) central to the proceedings.”

“Will this be seen as prejudging the conclusion Justice Charles Vaillancourt will reach on the same matter, and what if Justice Vaillancourt does not agree with the auditor general’s interpretation?”

The other sitting senator facing RCMP scrutiny is Ottawa-based Sen. Colin Kenny, who was appointed by Pierre Trudeau 31 years ago. Auditors found problems with $35,549 worth of travel claims that didn’t have enough documentation to prove he was on Senate business.

Kenny disputes the findings, including conclusions that he had staffers organize his personal affairs, which Kenny writes ended up “costing the Senate no money” and took up a minuscule portion of their daily workload.

In a release, Kenny said he would defend himself and expects to be vindicated.

Two others on the list of nine — former Conservative Donald Oliver and former Liberal Marie-P. Charette-Poulin — have repaid expenses deemed ineligible.

The remaining seven are disputing Ferguson’s findings. Some have delivered blistering responses that are included in the audit report. One calls on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to hold a referendum on Senate abolition this October.

Some 21 other senators have had their expenses flagged, with problematic claims totalling anywhere from a few thousand dollars to more than $100,000.

Housing is an issue for many in the group of nine, with auditors alleging three former Liberals lived primarily at what they claimed was a secondary residence in the capital.

Retired Liberal senator Rose-Marie Losier-Cool is being challenged on expenses totalling $110,051. The audit alleges she lived primarily in Gatineau, Que., just outside of Ottawa, rather than Moncton, N.B. It also alleges she expensed trips that weren’t for parliamentary business.

In her response, Losier-Cool said the auditors rejected explanations her lawyers provided for the travel, adding: “I carefully followed the Senate rules that were in effect on those dates.”

Thursday marked the start of the fallout from the almost 120-page audit, which many senators have yet to see. Sen. Pierre Hugues Boisvenu resigned from the Conservative caucus Thursday, admitting he is among the nine facing the prospect of a police investigation.

Harper appointed Boisvenu in 2010 on the back of his victims’ rights work, anchored in the foundation Boisvenu founded after losing his daughter Julie in 2002 to a violent killer.

Boisvenu allegedly misspent $61,076 during the two-year period under review. Auditors say he filed improper living claims and charged taxpayers $38,577 for mileage, accommodations and per diems related to work for the victims’ rights organization he founded before joining the Senate.

There was also $745 claimed for the expense of mailing off copies of his book.

Boisvenu disputed the auditors’ findings in the report, and is set to challenge the recommendations before the special expenses arbitrator the Senate hired last week.

“The fact that a parliamentarian advocates for a cause before, during or after his time as a legislator has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that the advocacy is or is not part of his duties as a parliamentarian,” Boisvenu wrote.

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