OTTAWA — The Conservative Party is demanding that the NDP pay taxpayers back for using parliamentary staff to work in party offices outside of Ottawa.

The Board of Internal Economy, the secretive all-party committee that administers the House of Commons, issued a “cease-and-desist” to the NDP on Monday. Board spokesman and Government Whip John Duncan told reporters that a temporary bylaw was adopted to stop the New Democrats from using House of Commons employees in a satellite office in Montreal. The bylaw also prevents them from opening satellite offices elsewhere.

The NDP insists that it did nothing wrong and is the victim of a witchhunt by the Conservatives, who have a majority on the board, and the Liberals.

Conservative MP Randy Hoback said he wrote to the board asking for an investigation after he was informed the NDP was looking to hire a staffer, paid out of the Commons’ budget, in Saskatoon – where the NDP has no MPs.

“What activities were they going to be performing? We already have 14 parliamentarians out of Saskatchewan that have offices throughout the province to perform those parliamentary function,” he said. “I couldn’t see any justification for them opening an office.”

Hoback said the board found that the NDP’s activities were “political in nature” and that, as such, the NDP should have to pay for it rather than the taxpayer.

“If it’s one dollar or $100,000, or hundreds of thousands of dollars, the NDP should be prepared to pay for it.”

Duncan confirmed that the board is still investigating the NDP’s use of satellite offices and plans to impose penalties as well.

“When we know the extent of how much the rules were broken, we’ll look at seeing how we can instruct the NDP to pay the taxpayer back,” he said Tuesday.

The NDP, however, has a very different interpretation of the board’s findings. In a statement, NDP House leader Peter Julian insisted the board had “absolved the NDP of all blame regarding our regional offices.”

He said the Liberals and Conservatives had changed the rules behind closed doors for partisan reasons to impede the NDP in its role as Official Opposition.

Duncan told reporters that is untrue.

“No, the rules are clear,” he said. “You can have House of Commons employees in a constituency office. You can have House of Commons employees in the parliamentary precinct, but those offices fit neither of those categories,” he said.

It’s unclear why Duncan and Julian differ so widely on the Board’s decision. Monday’s meeting, like all the committee’s meetings, are held in-camera.

In a December 2011 letter, obtained by the Huffington Post Canada, then-NDP House leader Joe Comartin wrote to Clerk of the Commons Audrey O’Brien to inform her of the details of a cost-sharing agreement between Quebec NDP MPs to pay for a satellite office.

Read the full letter below:

Letter Quebec Shared Staff Response Dec 2011

Comartin explained that in September 2011, Quebec NDP MPs had pooled their budgets together and hired additional employees to help support their work in the province. NDP sources said its employees are there to work on an MP’s behalf, to help with press releases and other communication products in French for local ridings.

“This arrangement was reviewed, discussed extensively and approved by House of Commons Pay and Benefits and Financial Services. It is my understanding that Legal Services was consulted via Pay and Benefits and Financial Services through this process,” Comartin wrote in the December 2011 letter.

The employees have the same “rights and responsibilities as other NDP MP and NDP House officer staff,” Comartin added, comparing them to part-time employees who work in several constituency offices at once.

“The employees hired by Quebec NDP members, perform work exclusively for these members,” Comartin stated.

It’s unclear if the House of Commons replied to the December 2011 letter. In November 2011, O’Brien had asked for more information from the NDP about the request.

Read O’Brien’s full letter below:

Reply to NDP from House of Commons

A year later, however, when the Board of Internal Economy concluded its study into allegations that former Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe had hired parliamentary staff to do partisan activity, the board found its rules were unclear.

“The Board acknowledges that the text of a key bylaw governing the use of House resources was not rigorously defined, leaving open the possibility of differing interpretations regarding the meaning of ‘parliamentary functions’,” it said in a statement.

Unable to find any wrongdoing, the board changed the rules in 2012 to prevent similar cases from happening.

“It was never the intention of the board to allow House of Commons resources to be used to support political party activity or party staff,” the board said in its report.

As part of the review, the definition of “parliamentary functions” was clarified, and political party and electoral activities were explicitly excluded. The board said it would also require MPs to provide information about all the duties their employees perform.

NDP press secretary Marc-André Viau would not say whether the party discussed the employees who had been working in the satellite offices since 2012. He noted that the issue this time was not the scope of the employees’ work but the location of the offices.

“Not only do we know we broke no rules because we answered all the questions in 2011. We know that we followed all the rules because THEY HAD TO CHANGE THE RULES BEHIND CLOSED DOORS,” he wrote in an email.

Hoback said the NDP was unhappy because they had been caught bending the rules.

“A poor sport blames the ref,” he said.

The new bylaw kicks in on April 14 and will end when Parliament is dissolved just before the 2015 election. Duncan said the board may later decide to reintroduce the bylaw or implement broader changes dealing with satellite offices.

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