OTTAWA — The Prime Minister’s Office is taking heat for thousands in questionable lunch expenses, and the opposition parties say a former high-ranking member of Harper’s team wants to make sure other top public servants suffer the same fate.
Former Harper chief of staff Guy Giorno emailed The Huffington Post Canada on Tuesday after we reported that the Prime Minister’s Office had spent close to $68,000 over three years providing lunches for a weekly meeting with ministerial chiefs of staff — an apparent breach of Treasury Board guidelines. Chiefs make six-figure salaries that top off at $178,800.
Giorno wrote: “Are you going to update your article to include the weekly (Wednesday, I believe) deputy ministers’ breakfasts? 4th floor, Langevin. Every week for as long as anyone can remember.”
It was under Giorno’s leadership that the PMO started expensing the weekly staff lunches in the summer of 2010. The luncheons from Boston Pizza, House of Greek, Indian Express, Café Deluxe, Freshii’s, Southern Cross and El Mazaj averaged between $442 and $659 for 40 people.
Opposition parties seemed genuinely stunned to hear Giorno — who left the PMO in 2011 but was recently tapped to become a legal advisor to the Conservative Party — point the finger at bureaucrats.
NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus told HuffPost that getting caught and “ratting out public servants who do the same thing” is not ethical behaviour.
“It’s like ‘You catch me? Well, we’ll throw someone under the bus’,” Angus said.
Liberal Treasury Board critic Gerry Byrne said Giorno had not made the problem smaller but “made it much bigger.”
“If the deputy ministers are doing this as well, I don’t know that that provides an effective cover. Frankly, it means that there may be a sweeping problem in the government about an understanding of the government’s own rules and regulations,” he said.
HuffPost attempted to add up the cost of the deputy ministers’ breakfasts over the past six years. Raymond Rivet, a spokesperson for the Privy Council Office, the department which organizes the breakfasts, said the tally for each deputy minister’s meal was transferred to their department. But figures posted online were either incomplete or missing.
According to the Privy Council’s website, it spent $7,774.35 on breakfasts for 16 individuals during the same 39-month period as the chiefs of staff’s luncheons. But documents obtained under Access to Information by researcher Ken Rubin, and reported by Sun Media, suggest the costs of the breakfasts over three years could be as high as $66,000.
“When the full group of deputy ministers are present, each breakfast bill can be as high as $805.69 as it was on Sept. 21, 2011,” wrote reporter David Akin.
Deputy ministers are top public servants who manage thousands of employees and earn between $190,500 and $449,109 a year.
In an email exchange, Giorno defended the PMO lunches — and the deputy ministers’ breakfasts — saying it was “entirely appropriate to furnish breakfast or lunch when a meeting is scheduled over a meal period.”
“The policy expressly provides for this,” he added.
The Treasury Board's hospitality policy states that federal employees can only be provided hospitality in situations that "extend beyond normal working hours," where employees are required to work during their normal break and meal periods, where there are no nearby facilities to obtain meals, or where staff dispersal is not efficient. (There are several restaurants and lunch counters near the Prime Minister's Office).
Treasury Board President Tony Clement told the House of Commons Tuesday that “the rules had not been broken” and he suggested routine working staff lunches fell under the guidelines.
In the House of Commons Wednesday, Byrne continued to question the Tories about the meal expenses.
"These $67,000 in lunches are part of the PMO disclosure," Byrne said. "The only person who could have approved them is the Prime Minister himself.
"So to the Prime Minister, what was on today's menu, compliments of the taxpayers?"
Treasury Board President Tony Clement replied by saying the Tories had cut expenses by 48% since they came to power.
"We are going to continue and respect the taxpayer," he said.
When pressed by HuffPost, neither Clement nor the prime minister’s spokesperson, Jason MacDonald, provided any details about how the meals fell within the guidelines.
Byrne told HuffPost he disagrees with the view that weekly events are “working lunches.”
"These Conservative staffers are not being held in a budget lock-up, there is not an emergency session," he said, pointing out that the meals are routine occurrences.
“That is would not be my read of the policy and I am a former member of the Treasury Board [cabinet committee under Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien].”
“On its face, it is pretty clear. [It] does not seem to me that they are keeping within the spirit or the letter of the law,” he said.
Norman Spector, a chief of staff to former prime minister Brian Mulroney, suggested on Twitter that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s team could have found a cheaper way to meet its staff.
Couldn't they have these meetings over coffee at 10AM? #QP
— Norman Spector (@nspector4) February 25, 2014
Giorno said it was difficult to find a regular time when so many chiefs of staff could be available. “As I recall, the lunch period is a time when Cabinet committees do not meet and the House is not sitting… Also many Ministers do not require their chiefs' presence over the lunch period, making it a suitable meeting time,” he wrote in an email.
Rivet, the Privy Council spokesperson, explained the deputy ministers' breakfasts are an opportunity for top civil servants to exchange information and discuss current government issues.
Given the confidentially of issues discussed, face-to-face meetings are required, he wrote in an email.
“[Given] the difficulty to gather all deputy ministers in one location on a weekly basis, a breakfast meeting is the most practical option,” he added.
The breakfast meetings have been a tradition for decades, he said.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled Ken Rubin's name. This version has been updated.