POLITICS

Senator Don Plett: Expense Review May Turn Up 'Honest Mistakes,' Clearer Rules Needed

10/08/2013 05:37 EDT | Updated 10/08/2013 07:24 EDT
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OTTAWA — A Conservative senator says it's possible a review of his expenses by the auditor general could turn up a few genuine errors in his own spending.

Senator Don Plett told HuffPost he hopes the Senate will adopt clearer rules so senators aren't unfairly forced to pay back thousands of dollars worth of expenses that Senate staff have already approved.

In a candid conversation, Plett said he's spent money prudently, tried to record everything and hopes there aren't any improper claims.

"But it is only realistic to think that over the years some senators, like some of our colleagues in the House of Commons, have made some minor mistakes. Honest mistakes, but mistakes," he said.

Plett is among several Conservative senators who told HuffPost they hope the Senate enacts changes this fall. The proposed reforms could include making the chamber more transparent, sending a tough message to senators who break the rules and ensuring the rules are clear for everybody.

HuffPost has learned that Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office sought the advice of Senator Claude Carignan, the Conservatives' leader in the Senate, for ways it could crack the whip on misbehaving senators.

Some of the proposals discussed between Carignan and the PMO included making it easier for senators to turf their colleagues for small criminal offences and stripping those who are convicted of crimes of their parliamentary pension.

According to one source, those proposals have been nixed and won't be included in next week's Speech from The Throne. Instead, the federal government will look to the Supreme Court for guidance on how to reform the upper chamber through elections, or possibly even abolition.

It will be left up to senators to decide which reforms they want to enact to help them gain the public's trust.

Top of mind, for many, is making sure that the rules governing what senators can and cannot expense are clear.

"All I ask is that the rules be clear," Plett told HuffPost.

Expensing travel for partisan purposes has always been allowed in the Senate. But Plett is now concerned those rules could be changed retroactively.

Many senators were caught by surprise this August after a Deloitte audit of Senator Pamela Wallin's travel expenses found several of her trips to be of a personal nature rather than legitimate "Senate business."

"Senate business" is a nebulous term that grants senators leeway in claiming expenses beyond their parliamentary work. Some senators travel for partisan purposes, others to champion not-for-profit causes, and others to support public policy issues.

Whatever a senator deemed to be Senate business was considered legitimate Senate business — until the rules were clarified in 2012. A handy cheat sheet noted, among other examples, that flying home for the funeral of a family member or friend was not a Senate expense.

In their report, Deloitte auditors noted that they had no way of comparing Wallin's expenses to her colleagues because she was the only senator audited. Her lawyer, Terrence O'Sullivan, complained the 2012 rules were retroactively applied to her past expenses which had been approved at the time.

She was asked to repay $138,969.

On Tuesday, the NDP called on Liberal and Conservative senators to take a non-partisan pledge, urging them to stop attending caucus meetings with MPs and to stop using their offices and travel budgets to engage in political activities, such as party organizing and fundraising across the country.

NDP ethics critic MP Charlie Angus said senators should limit their travel to only what is directly related to their committee studies, legislative work and flights back home.

Plett told HuffPost that if the Senate wants to become non-partisan, that's fine but the rules should be changed so everyone knows. As long as partisan activities are allowed, he said, senators have to be able to do them "without fear of reprisal later on."

Alberta Conservative Senator Doug Black cited Wallin as a reason why the Tory caucus has to clearly define what is and isn't Senate business.

"I don’t want any of my colleagues getting in the same jam as Senator Wallin," he said.

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The Many Faces Of Pamela Wallin

Several senators expressed concern that Wallin's audit would put a chill of some of their activities. Plett said that chill was not a "work environment we want to create."

"Media scrutiny is always going to be a reality, but at this level, it could encourage senators to stay home, to avoid being in the public eye, which is extremely unfortunate, for senators and for constituents," he said.

If the rules are clear, then the consequences for breaching them should be clear too, suggested Conservative Senator Linda Frum.

"A lot of us are really eager to see a clearer code of conduct. Perhaps one where there are consequences for any violations of the code of conduct," Frum said.

"It shouldn't be as difficult to expel," she added.

Black, the senator who was chosen by the Alberta electorate, agrees that senators should be expelled for serious offences.

"Canadians don't get how senators can break the rules, be found to have broken the rules and there is no consequence. And frankly, I agree with them.

"I mean, you're fired," Black said.

Under current rules, senators who are convicted of a crime but serve less than two years in jail are allowed to keep their seats — unless they're removed by a majority vote. Senators are only automatically disqualified for reasons of bankruptcy, treason, taking out a foreign citizenship and a prolonged absence from the Senate.

Several senators told HuffPost they worry that if it becomes too easy to remove senators, the chamber could descend into partisanship. Opposition party members or unpopular senators could find themselves thrown out simply because they didn't belong to the majority party or failed to make enough friends.

"You have to be very careful with something that could run amok and cause unintended consequences," warns David Tkachuk, the former chair of the Senate's internal economy committee.

"I suppose you could add more reasons for removal… but that would have to be carefully considered."

Frum agrees that there has to be "extremely stringent safeguards" against abuse for partisan purposes. But she said there should be a more clean mechanism to expel in extreme cases of bad behaviour.

Black believes senators who are found guilty of a serious crime, something involving money, assault, fraud, theft or impersonation — but not 200 parking tickets — should have the taxpayer-funded portion of their pension stripped.

"Short of termination, I think the most effective deterrent will be that your pension is interfered with," he told HuffPost.

Black recently came out with a seven-point plan to reform the Senate. It calls for stiffer residency rules to ensure senators actually live in their province.

"Because you can't represent it if you don't live there because you don't know it," he said.

He also champions webcasting the Senate so that Canadians have a better idea of what Senators actually do. Some senators, such as former Conservative leader in the Senate Marjory LeBreton, have opposed the idea of TV cameras fearing they would turn the upper house's typically collegial discourse into the more partisan political theatre of the House of Commons.

But LeBreton told HuffPost she's now ambivalent. "It is a decision for the Senate as a whole and I will support whatever they decide."

The more controversial change that's causing tensions in the Tory caucus is the posting of senators' detailed expenses online.

Many senators are still hesitant to push in that direction but Black, who posts all of his expenses and attendance records online, says the transparency is necessary.

"I didn’t go to Ottawa to address the price of my coffee pot. Just put out there what your expenses are," Black said.

"It will end discussion, it will end suspicion, it will end anxiety."

Plett said he doesn't plan to start posting his expenses online, but he'll cooperate with whatever the Conservative caucus decides. He believes senators should wait until the auditor general has completed his report into all senators expenses, hopefully late next year, before adopting a new reporting mechanism that is identical to what MPs on the House of Commons' side have to disclose.

"I believe that our reporting should be exactly the same as theirs so we don't have this us vs. them, we are all public servants and we should all have the same reporting," he said.

Gerald Comeau, the Conservative chair of the Senate's committee on internal economy, doesn't think online posting is the smartest idea. Comeau is worried that senators will post expenses online that don't end up matching the totals the finance department publishes every quarter.

"What you don't want is suddenly 105 senators starting to post their own expenses without being able to verify if what they are posting is accurately portrayed or not," he said. Several Conservative senators are posting their expenses online already and the Liberals have pledged they will soon publish their numbers, based on a model followed by cabinet ministers and senior public servants.

The only way to do it right, Comeau said, would be to have the finance department take over the publication of every senators' itemized expenses — a task he judged to be "absolutely onerous" and "prohibitively expensive."

Tkachuk, coincidentally, the man who introduced more transparency on senators’ expenses in the upper chamber three years ago, was removed from the internal economy committee earlier this summer. The Saskatchewan senator was accused of sharing details of Mike Duffy's external audit with him and whitewashing his report. He also allegedly told Wallin to edit her calendar. He denies both.

Under Tkachuk's leadership, senators began posting their quarterly expenses online in 2010 — a move that contributed to the extra scrutiny and brought possible cases of abuse to light.

He told HuffPost that he doesn't regret posting expenses and expects the Senate will come out of this dark period strong.

"I'm not sorry that it happened, I'm not sorry that we did that," he said. "I think in the long run this will prove to be a good thing and I think it will improve the institution."