OTTAWA - Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney has ordered a ban on international travel for members of an arm's-length agency that reviews the claims of veterans.
The order late Tuesday follows growing controversy over expense claims from John Larlee, chairman of the Veterans Review and Appeal Board since 2009.
The Canadian Press reported this week that Larlee took two taxpayer-funded trips to attend lectures in Britain, where his wife was also a participant.
A group representing Canada's veterans, the Canadian Veterans Advocacy, says the trips are suspect and wants Larlee called to account before a House of Commons committee.
New Democrats went further on Tuesday and demanded he be fired.
The minister turned aside those demands, saying the board is an arm's-length agency that is accountable for its own actions.
"We will stand by the tribunal and expect all board members to be responsible and show respect for taxpayer dollars at all times," he told the Commons.
"I am confident this board will keep on providing good services for our veterans."
Canada veteran's ombudsman tore a strip off the agency last week, saying it failed more often than not to give former soldiers the benefit of the doubt as they appealed benefits claims and didn't give reasons for denying claims.
NDP veterans critic Peter Stoffer reminded Blaney that he signed off for the chairman's last trip.
A spokeswoman for the minister, Codi Taylor, confirmed the travel ban Tuesday, but could not say whether any other action was pending.
Larlee attended the Cambridge Lecture series in 2007 at his own expense. But after he was appointed chairman, he billed the federal government for his visits in 2009 and 2011, at a total cost of $7,285.97.
"That kind of money would help a lot of disabled veterans," Stoffer said. "How does this minister allow that kind of abuse?"
Department sources say Blaney was unaware that Larlee's wife was attending the Cambridge lecture series when he approved the travel request.
The series, attended by the elite of Canadian and British political and legal communities, focuses on high-level international policy, with topics such as Afghanistan and the impact of the market collapse. Larlee's wife, Justice Margaret Larlee of the New Brunswick Court of Appeal, took part in the 2007, 2009 and 2011 events.
The chairman refused an interview request, but a spokeswoman for the board said the trips received the necessary approvals and were paid for in accordance with Treasury Board guidelines.
Danielle Gauthier said the conferences helped Larlee to guide the board through tribunal administration and fell within the category of professional development. Board records show Larlee attended five other training conferences in Canada — at a total cost of $6,757.67 — since he was appointed in 2009.
Under questioning in the Commons, Blaney said he expects the board to "rigorously apply its standards and it spend taxpayers' money carefully."
Veterans groups were dismayed.
"This is very disappointing on more than one level," said Mike Blais, of Canadian Veterans Advocacy.
"On one hand, Veterans Affairs Canada is sustaining severe cuts resulting in office closures and the dismissal of hundreds of employees, many who are front-line staff, yet on the other, we have the (review board), excluded from the budgetary cuts, squandering thousands of dollars (and) sending Mr. Larlee abroad to lectures."
In light of the conference agendas, he said the trips "surely cannot be justified."
The chairman of the review and appeal board should be fired if he can't provide a suitable explanation for attending the lectures at stately Cambridge University, north of London, Blais said.
The Conservative government promised to either reform or abolish the board and it's time to do one or the other, he added.
That pledge was made during the 2005 election campaign and the Stoffer reminded the government about it only to have the minister describe the notion an "irresponsible NDP suggestion."