Few fireworks result from expense audits

The auditor general pulled back the curtain on politicians’ spending by just a few inches Wednesday, giving Canadian taxpayers only the faintest of glimpses at how MPs and senators spend their money.

OTTAWA — The auditor general pulled back the curtain on politicians’ spending by just a few inches Wednesday, giving Canadian taxpayers only the faintest of glimpses at how MPs and senators spend their money.

Anyone hoping to learn details about any exorbitant spending by parliamentarians was likely disappointed by a pair of process-heavy audits of some $500 million in Senate and House of Commons expenses.

Watchdog groups, hopeful the reports would probe specific spending habits, were disappointed in what they described as little more than polite reminders to MPs and senators to properly fill out their expense claims.

“In Britain, in Nova Scotia, in those places there were resignations, criminal charges and scandal, that’s where the fun and games was,” said Gregory Thomas of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

“And the auditor general bypassed that completely.”

Auditor General Michael Ferguson’s team found a handful of cases where expense claims were missing supporting documents. That made it difficult for the auditors to tell if the claims were valid.

For example, one unnamed senator submitted a travel claim for a trip to Washington, D.C., without providing any details beyond stating that it was for parliamentary business.

When it came to the House of Commons, the audit found bigger problems.

Ferguson’s team found that the main issue with how finances were managed inside the House was with procurement. They tested contracts, purchase orders and standing offers, and found that in 41 out of 59 cases, the administration’s own rules were being broken.

“This result points to a widespread lack of compliance,” the report says.

The auditor general cited one example where a bidder on a $600,000 contract should have been dismissed for not meeting a requirement, but instead was awarded the job. There were no hints on what the contract entailed, or who won it.

Ferguson told a news conference the contract was for “professional services.” He did not elaborate on the nature of the work, but said the contract was cancelled and re-tendered after his team raised red flags.

The audit also found that when four different sole-source contracts were being handed out, there was no prior oversight by the directorate that is supposed to monitor the procurement file.

Conflict-of-interest forms are supposed to be filled out during each contract process by those evaluating the bidders and awarding the contracts. But in five out of seven cases studied by the auditors, the form had not been attached or was filled out after the process had started.

Still, Ferguson said his team came across nothing that makes him want to probe specific MPs’ or senators’ offices.

The administrations of both the House of Commons and Senate welcomed the audits.

But Tyler Sommers of Democracy Watch called them “disappointing.”

“Given that it has been 20 years since MPs and senators were audited in any way … and given that serious violations have been found by auditors in other jurisdictions, the federal auditor general is simply failing to fulfil his legal duties by continuing to fail to audit the $500 million spent by MPs annually,” Sommers said in a statement.

The terms of the two audits, launched in 2010 after public pressure forced parliamentarians to relent and permit the investigation, ensure that the reports don’t name any specific MPs or senators.

Former auditor general Sheila Fraser was repeatedly denied the right to do such an audit by parliament’s powerful, all-party Board of Internal Economy.

But in the spring of 2010, a massive public outcry erupted over politician spending scandals in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador and Britain.

The Nova Scotia audit turned up evidence of public money spent on power generators, custom-made furniture, TVs and other electronic goods. That scandal is still reverberating, with former Liberal MLA Dave Wilson sentenced to nine months in jail this April and ordered to repay nearly $61,000 he defrauded to feed a gambling addiction.

A 2006 audit in Newfoundland found millions of questionable dollars wasted by all three parties, including $2.6 million spent on lapel pins, fridge magnets and other trinkets over a period of years.

And British newspapers had a field day in 2009 after a detailed list of spending irregularities by MPs was leaked, culminating with charges against a number of British parliamentarians.

A Canadian Press Harris-Decima poll in the spring of 2010 found that four out of five respondents believed MPs were breaking the rules on expenses, and 85 per cent expressed concern about Parliament stonewalling the audit request.