POLITICS

Vets board chair says UK lecture junkets 'worthwhile,' but still repaid cost

10/01/2012 05:12 EDT | Updated 12/01/2012 05:12 EST
OTTAWA - The chairman of an oft-maligned federal veterans appeal agency who took two taxpayer-funded junkets to Britain is insisting to a House of Commons committee that the trips were worthwhile.

Still, John Larlee who heads the Veterans Review and Appeal Board said he repaid the federal government for two trips to the Cambridge Lecture series.

The Canadian Press reported last May that Larlee's attendance at the lectures in 2009 and 2011, which were listed as professional development, cost $7,285.97.

Larlee also attended the lectures in 2007 with his wife, Justice Margaret Larlee of the New Brunswick Court of Appeal, but paid out of his own pocket that time.

The series, attended by elite members of the 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.

It was a justifiable expense, an unapologetic John Larlee told the Commons veterans affairs committee Monday.

"It was of benefit to me and I remain of the (opinion) it was of a benefit to me, and assisted me in leading this tribunal," Larlee said under questioning by the Liberals.

Larlee didn't explain to the all-party committee precisely what aspects of the series touched on tribunal administration, or veterans care.

He says Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney didn't ask him to reimburse the cash a statement that surprised Opposition members.

"I did it on my own part immediately upon being informed that there were concerns by veterans that it may not have been in their interests, although I feel as chair of a national tribunal, for my own professional development, they were worthwhile," he said.

A senior government official, speaking on background late Monday, said Blaney didn't ask for repayment because such a gesture was considered "a no-brainer."

The trips fell within federal Treasury Board guidelines, Larlee insisted.

Repaying the cost was also a recognition that "the country was in a period of fiscal restraint," he said.

When the report came to light, Blaney did order a ban on international travel for members of an arm's-length agency, which reviews the claims of veterans and was at the centre of a privacy scandal involving a sitting member earlier this year.

Opposition New Democrats demanded Larlee be fired last spring, but chose not to tackle him on Monday as the committee held hearings into the board, which has been engulfed in controversy.

Larlee's testimony reignited calls for his resignation from a veterans group, which said the chairman's attitude smacked of entitlement.

"There have been serious lapses of leadership during his administration, inclusive of multiple privacy breaches, a Canadian Human Right Commission award for harassment against a veteran serving on the board and equally disturbing, a scathing report by Veterans Ombudsman Guy Parent," said Mike Blais, president of Canadian Veterans Advocacy.

The country's veteran's ombudsman tore a strip off the agency in the spring, saying it often failed to give former soldiers the benefit of the doubt as they appealed benefits claims, and also frequently failed to provide reasons for denying claims.