POLITICS

Ontario fairness commissioner calls questioning of her expenses 'heartbreaking'

11/04/2014 05:09 EST | Updated 01/04/2015 05:59 EST
TORONTO - Ontario Fairness Commissioner Jean Augustine said Tuesday that it was "heartbreaking" to see the Progressive Conservatives questioning her expenses in the legislature.

PC critic Monte McNaughton said Augustine billed taxpayers for everything from $3,400 in limousine rides to $3.40 for airplane headphones during her time as fairness commissioner.

The commissioner is supposed to make sure everyone who is qualified to practice in a regulated profession can get a licence in Ontario, not travel the world on the taxpayers' dime, added McNaughton.

"Clearly the eHealth and Pan-Am Games style of entitlement is alive and well ... at the Office of the Fairness Commissioner," he said.

Augustine said she paid back the $3.40 charge for the airplane headphones, which she insisted she did not mean to expense to taxpayers.

"That was an accident," she told The Canadian Press in an interview.

But the Tories weren't buying the accident excuse.

"I think the fairness commissioner was caught, and that's why she decided to pay some of them back," McNaughton said.

McNaughton also complained that Augustine, a former federal Liberal MP, also billed taxpayers for the cost of a personal sightseeing tour while on a $6,300 trip to Finland last year.

It wasn't a sightseeing trip but part of the international conference she was attending, said Augustine, who also defended her limo use as "all business."

The fairness commissioner said she wasn't sure why the Tories were attacking her reputation, insisting she's always been "honest and upstanding" in her public service career.

"It's so heartbreaking because all I have is my reputation," she said. "They're just wrecking my reputation, and it's really destructive stuff."

The Conservatives said the Liberal government should require people in positions like the fairness commissioner to post their expenses online.

"This government talks about transparency, yet the only way we were able to learn about this shocking abuse of public money was through a freedom of information request," said McNaughton. "It doesn't seem like the Fairness Commissioner is being very fair to taxpayers in this province."

Citizenship and Immigration Minister Michael Chan said the Office of the Fairness Commissioner is an arm's-length agency and his ministry has no involvement in its day-to-day operations.

"The government of Ontario has a number of rules and regulations regarding expense accounts, put in place to protect the people of Ontario, and promote fairness across all levels of government, including agencies," he said. "We expect everyone to adhere to these rules, particularly those in a position of authority."

Chan's office put out a statement at the end of the day to make it clear Augustine's expenses were under review by the government.

"It is our understanding that the documents disclosed to the PCs included expenditures submitted to ministry officials, not necessarily approved expenses," said spokesman Bryan Leblanc.

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