Senate Scandal: Auditor General May Soon Inspect Expenses

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SENATE EXPENSES AUDITOR
The Harper government is hoping to restore public confidence in the Senate by putting the scandal-plagued chamber's books under the auditor general's microscope. (CP) | CP

OTTAWA - The Harper government is hoping to restore public confidence in the Senate by putting the scandal-plagued chamber's books under the auditor general's microscope.

Sen. Marjory LeBreton, the government leader in the Senate, introduced a motion Tuesday asking auditor general Michael Ferguson to conduct a comprehensive audit of Senate expenses, including the expense claims filed by individual senators.

But New Democrats, who long ago concluded the unelected Senate is beyond redemption, introduced a motion of their own to essentially starve the chamber to death.

The NDP motion calls for funding to the Senate to be cut off as of July 1 — what NDP Leader Tom Mulcair referred to as a Canada Day "gift."

Liberal Senate leader James Cowan said his caucus isn't opposed to bringing in the auditor general, although he questioned LeBreton's motives.

"I think it's a distraction," he said.

Liberal senators refused Tuesday to give unanimous consent to deal with the motion immediately — a fact Prime Minister Stephen Harper used repeatedly to try to deflect opposition questions in the Houe of Commons about the expense scandal.

However, Cowan said Liberals are simply being prudent in wanting a day, as required by Senate rules, to consider LeBreton's motion thoughtfully.

"We got into this mess because we were trying to short-circuit some systems and some rules," Cowan said.

LeBreton's motion will be debated in the Senate on Wednesday, at the same time that the NDP motion is to be debated down the corridor in the House of Commons.

LeBreton said she decided to call for full scrutiny of Senate expenses after reading hundreds of emails from taxpayers outraged by the scandal involving invalid housing, living and travel expense claims made by at least four senators.

"Most of them just want this place fixed," LeBreton said after introducing her motion.

"The only result that would satisfy the public and also satisfy me as the government leader in the Senate and provide transparency was to move a motion to call in the auditor general."

LeBreton added: "I'm sure at the end of the day, the Canadian taxpayer will be well satisfied and also the institution of the Senate will have started to recover some of its credibility."

However, if Ferguson does conduct an audit of every claim filed by every senator, he could turn up the kind of spending scandals that led to criminal charges against four MLAs after a 2010 audit of expense claims by Nova Scotia legislators.

LeBreton said she's confident that 99 per cent of her Senate colleagues have conducted themselves properly. Those who haven't "will have to live with the consequences of their own actions."

Controversy over the housing allowance claims of three senators — former Conservatives Mike Duffy and Patrick Brazeau and former Liberal Mac Harb — has been swirling since last fall. Their claims were subjected to an external audit.

An external audit of Sen. Pamela Wallin's travel expenses is still ongoing.

The Duffy affair has proven the most explosive thus far. It was revealed last month that Prime Minister Stephen Harper's chief of staff, Nigel Wright, personally gave Duffy $90,000 so that the senator could reimburse his improperly claimed expenses.

Wright resigned shortly after his involvement was revealed. The transaction is now under investigation by the ethics commissioners for the House of Commons.

Senate ethics officer Lyse Ricard was also looking into the transaction but her office said in a statement Tuesday that she "is suspending her review for the time being because the matter has been referred to the RCMP."

The Senate called on the RCMP last week to investigate after it was discovered that Duffy appears to have made Senate expense claims while campaigning for Conservative candidates during the last election.

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