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."
Top 5 Political Spending Scandals
Here are a few examples of some red-faced moments in public expense reports, in which those involved likely wished they had gone back and done -- or in the case of David Dingwall, said -- a few things differently.<br><br><em>With files from CBC</em><br><br>(CP/Getty)
5. Cleaning The Moat
Britain's parliamentarians became embroiled in scandal in 2009 over their declared expenses after the Daily Telegraph obtained an uncensored copy of their claims and published them.<br><br> Details disclosed by the newspaper showed how MPs from all parties manipulated rules by routinely switching the designation of their second home -- using public money to furnish and improve several properties and later sell them at a profit.<br><br> Facing fierce public fury as embarrassing details emerged daily, nearly 400 British MPs, including then Prime Minister Gordon Brown, were ordered to pay back close to $2 million in wrongfully claimed expenses.<br><br> But amid the outrage, one the most publicized cases was of that then Conservative MP Douglas Hogg, who was alleged to have expensed the cleaning of a moat at his family's country estate. Hogg agreed to repay the cost of cleaning the moat, but insisted he had only listed the cleaning cost as an expenditure on his house and never asked to be reimbursed. He decided not to stand for his seat in the 2010 election.<br><br> (MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images)
4. EHealth Ontario
A scandal broke out in Ontario in 2009 over wasteful and untendered consulting contracts at eHealth, a provincial Crown corporation charged with creating an electronic health records system. The controversy over eHealth's spending led to the resignation of then Health Minister David Caplan.<br><br> Among the embarrassing revelations at eHealth, CBC News obtained documents that showed consultants, contracted by eHealth at up to $2,750 a day, billed taxpayers for out-of-pocket expenses that included $1.65 for a cup of tea and $3.99 for cookies.<br><br> The documents said eHealth CEO and president Sarah Kramer billed thousands of dollars for limousine rides, including one $400 trip from Toronto to London, Ont., before she left her $380,000-a-year job in June of that year.<br><br>(CP)
3. Nova Scotia MLA Scandal
Nova Scotia's provincial legislature was rocked by a report by the provincial auditor general that found that many MLAs submitted questionable expense claims over a number of years. The affair evolved into a criminal investigation that led to several MLAs resigning and at least one former member being sentenced to prison.<br><br> Ex-Liberal MLA Dave Wilson, pictured, pleaded guilty to defrauding Nova Scotia taxpayers of nearly $61,000 to support his gambling addiction and was sentenced last week to nine months of jail time and 18 months of probation. Crown attorneys in his case detailed how Wilson submitted 36 false expense receipts using five people's names -- including his niece and brother-in-law -- totalling $60,995. Wilson apologized to his family and the people of the province, telling the court he was deeply ashamed of his actions.<br><br>(CP)
2. George Radwanski
Former federal privacy commissioner George Radwanski resigned in 2003 under a cloud following intense scrutiny of his spending. At the time, Radwanski blamed "a powerful political backlash from some who would prefer a less forceful privacy commissioner." His severance package was initially $82,562, but later cut to nothing.<br><br> Radwanski resigned after a Commons committee called for a full audit of Radwanski's expense claims, which included more than $500,000 in travel claims, $250 drinks tabs and dinner bills of more than $450, usually shared with one staff member.<br><br> Auditor General Sheila Fraser's report called for an RCMP investigation of Radwanski after her department's audit revealed "a major failure of management controls and the abuse of public funds by the former commissioner and some senior executives, for their personal benefit."<br><br> In 2009, an Ontario judge acquitted Radwanski of criminal fraud charges, but criticized his "negligent and cavalier" approach to accounting for controversial expenses he claimed while in office. Radwanski's former chief of staff, Art Lamarche, was convicted of breach of trust. Radwanski acknowledged he wished he had done some things differently, but insisted he "never acted dishonestly or knowingly improperly in any way." <br><br>(CP)
1. 'I'm Entitled To My Entitlements'
In February 2006, former Liberal cabinet minister David Dingwall was awarded $417,780 in compensation after an independent arbitrator concluded he was forced out of his $277,000-a-year job as head of the Royal Canadian Mint.<br><br> His removal from the head of the Crown corporation came amid a frenzy caused by unproven allegations that he and his office made improper and excessive expense claims, as the then Liberal government was reeling from the inquiry into the federal sponsorship scandal.<br><br> Opposition MPs, including then Opposition Leader Stephen Harper, portrayed the Dingwall case as a sign of Liberal misspending, accusing him of wasting taxpayers' money on reimbursement claims for expensive meals, excessive travel and even a pack of chewing gum. In the midst of the controversy over his resignation and compensation package, Dingwall drew the scorn of opposition parties when he said the now notorious words to a Commons committee: "I'm entitled to my entitlements."<br><br> Harper's party picked up the phrase and used it repeatedly as an example of Liberal arrogance during the campaign leading up to the Jan. 23, 2006, general election.<br><br> In fact, an independent audit of the expenses by accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers later found that more than 70 per cent of them were incurred by other employees in Dingwall's office at the Mint, and that all the payments had been properly approved under the Crown corporation's guidelines.<br><br> A second independent review by law firm Osler, Hoskin and Harcourt concluded the governance of expendures at the Mint went "well beyond what one could expect to find in most private-sector corporations."<br><br>(CP)