OTTAWA — NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair misled Canadians when he said his party had received approval from the House of Commons to set up a satellite office in Montreal, new documents suggest.
The Huffington Post Canada has learned that the House of Commons administration, including clerk Audrey O’Brien, believed from October 2011 until March 2014 that the NDP had set up a caucus bureau for its Quebec MPs in Ottawa, not in Montreal.
“At no point was the House Administration informed that the employees would be located in Montreal or that their work would be carried out in co-location with a political party’s offices,” documents given to MPs sitting on the Commons’ Procedure and House Affairs committee state.
At a March 24 press conference, Mulcair told reporters that the House of Commons had signed off on the satellite office.
“This is work that is completely allowed, that has been verified and validated,” he said.
The NDP staffers’ own employment forms – signed by NDP MPs — said they worked in an Ottawa office, even though they were really living and working in Montreal.
In 2011, interim NDP Leader Nycole Turmel’s deputy chief of staff Jess Turk-Browne told two members of the House of Commons staff that the employees would be working for Quebec NDP MPs in Ottawa.
“Ms. Turk-Browne specified the employees would be working in Ottawa even though their home addresses are in Montreal,” the minutes of one October 2011 meeting state.
But NDP press secretary Marc-André Viau suggested Monday evening that Commons staff implicitly approved the arrangement when they agreed the party could hire staff who lived in Montreal.
“If we had not followed the rules would the director of pay and benefits...have agreed to send cheques? Nope,” Viau wrote in an email.
The offsite staff each received a House of Commons Blackberry with a 514 area code, Viau added.
“They live in Montreal, you expect them to drive four [hours] a day? Of course they work out of Montreal,” he wrote. “Clearly there was an arrangement between the [House of Commons] administration and the NDP … This is much more solid proof than the allegations coming out of the [Board of Internal Economy].”
The board, the secretive all-party committee that administers the House of Commons, is currently investigating whether the NDP broke any rules when it set up party offices outside of Ottawa with staff paid for by taxpayers.
There are similar satellite offices in Quebec City and Toronto and the party wanted to start one in Saskatoon.
The board is also studying whether the NDP abused its free mailing privileges when it sent out some 2 million pieces of mail within five months to 26 ridings where it has no MPs. That number included 385,619 letters sent to three ridings just before a by-election call. The letters talked about the NDP leader Thomas Mulcair’s experience and attacked the Liberals and Conservatives for unethical behaviour.
MPs are specifically banned from using their offices to promote their political party. They cannot use their resources to help the “administration, organization, and internal communications of a political party and the solicitation of member to a political party.” They also cannot use their office to fundraise or to support or oppose any candidate in an election.
Sources told HuffPost Monday that the NDP is refusing to turn over documents to help the board with its probe.
“We are having problems getting information from them and they are not being very co-operative,” said a person who wasn’t authorized to speak about the matter publicly.
HuffPost has learned that the board was recently advised that the NDP mailings breached the rules because they were too partisan.
The board’s inquiries into the use of NDP satellite offices, however, has ground to a halt because the NDP is refusing to turn over documents.
Turmel, now the party whip, wrote the board stating the NDP won’t hand over any records before Mulcair testifies at a Commons committee Thursday. The NDP wants assurances that any documents given to the board won’t find their way into the hands of MPs questioning their leader.
Mulcair is being forced to appear before the Procedure and House Affairs committee Thursday to explain the NDP’s use of taxpayer resources for partisan purposes.
So far, the NDP has refused to identify where the satellite offices are located, what jobs employees are performing, what MPs are paying for what services and what other Commons resources, such as furniture and Blackberry devices, are being used.
The board is holding a special meeting on Wednesday to try to get over the impasse.
Mulcair has repeatedly said his party “always followed the rules.”
In March, Mulcair said former leader Jack Layton was responsible for devising the plan that pooled the MPs’ office budgets to pay for extra support staff.
“When Jack Layton put these offices in place, of course we took care to look at that and we are always careful,” he said.
Party work was done by party employees and caucus work was done by Parliamentary staff, he said.
The Montreal office is “doing support work for caucus, which is allowed,” Mulcair said.
In April, when the board announced it would explicitly ban parliamentary staff from working in premises owned or leased by a political party, the NDP leader said the new rule was “proof” the New Democrats “were following the rules before.”
Layton passed away on August 22, 2011. According to documents provided by the Commons’ administration, many NDP employees working for the Montreal office were hired in late August. Public servants only started asking questions about the unusual arrangement, however, after they received the employees’ paperwork in late September.
Mulcair told reporters the offices were no secret and ever since becoming leader in March 2012, he had spoken openly about opening up new offices in Quebec.
Mulcair’s spokesman George Smith repeated his boss’s lines Monday.
“Everything was set up following the rules in place at the time,” he said.
Smith provided HuffPost with a copy of a letter that he said “demonstrates the clerk was given details of the arrangement.”
Nowhere in the letter does it mention that the employees will be working outside of Ottawa.
The nine employees working for the NDP Quebec caucus were to be paid a total of $503,036, documents show.
In March, after the Speaker’s office was contacted by a reporter inquiring about the Montreal office, the Commons’ chief financial officer Mark Watters wrote to the clerk. He informed her that the story must be related to the Ottawa office staff who were given approval to work for several Quebec NDP MPs at once.
“I do not believe that the NDP set up a Quebec Office,” Watters wrote.
“That is my recollection as well, Mark,” O’Brien responded.
If the board members agree with the findings, they can dock an MP’s budget or request the reimbursement from a member personally. Possible courses of action also include referring the matter to the House for discipline, taking legal action or referring the matter to authorities such as the RCMP.
Some reports suggest the NDP might be forced to repay up to $3 million in ineligible expenses.
The House of Commons committee’ probe, which begins Thursday with Mulcair’s testimony, will only look at whether the party intended to skirt the rules related to partisan and electoral activities.
The board will decide whether any breaches took place.