EDMONTON — Alberta’s tourism minister admits she has not handled her personal expenses well, starting with billing taxpayers to fly her, her mother and daughter to the London Olympics.
“I take my job very seriously. I came here to do good work. I didn’t come here to get a free meal. I didn’t come here to be able to misuse taxpayer dollars,” Christine Cusanelli said Thursday.
Documents show she was ordered in August to pay back $10,600 for improper personal expenses racked up since joining the legislature and cabinet following the April 23 election.
Cusanelli said the problem was a misunderstanding on what can be charged and how. Those questions have now been cleared up, she said.
“There is not a dime of taxpayers’ money that has been used for my personal use.”
Expenses for all Premier Alison Redford’s cabinet members were released Wednesday to meet her promise to be more open and accountable about how public money is spent.
Cusanelli’s expenses included 31 separate items that needed to be repaid. The largest cost was $4,078 for two airline tickets to London during the Olympics. Cusanelli was working there in an official capacity promoting the province.
She said she took her family along because her daughter had a birthday during that time. Having family members around was not a distraction to her official government business, the minister said.
“This job is all about balance (between family and work),” said the rookie legislature member for Calgary-Currie.
Among the other costs she repaid was $850 for “materials” bought at the Calgary Stampede. She declined to say what those materials were.
Given that Cusanelli used to work as a school principal, it was hard to believe she didn’t understand what should and shouldn’t be billed to the public, suggested Opposition Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith.
“She actually is a seasoned administrator,” said Smith.
“I have to say I’m skeptical these were just honest mistakes. There were too many of them and the dollar amount was too high for it just to have been an oversight.”
Liberal Leader Raj Sherman said Cusanelli’s “support team” should have been able to help her.
“They know the rules. How did this happen?” he asked.
“But I’m glad they’ve recognized 31 mistakes were made and they’ve taken corrective action.”
NDP Leader Brian Mason said the whole Olympic trip was part business, part junket.
The total bill for Alberta’s Games entourage, including Premier Alison Redford, was more than $518,000 — including $113,000 on unused hotel rooms.
“This was not just a business trip to promote. People saw this as a nice holiday. A junket,” said Mason.
“It was really presumptuous to assume the taxpayer would pay for (Cusanelli’s) family members on that trip.”