OTTAWA — Several Conservative senators say they wish they had known their Senate leadership had been fingered by the auditor general when they drafted a new arbitration process for those with questionable expenses.
The three most powerful people in the upper chamber — Senate Speaker Leo Housakos, government leader Claude Carignan, and the Liberal Senate leader Jim Cowan — are all in disputes with the AG’s office over questionable expenses, several sources reported Thursday. They are among 21 senators with disputed expenses but not among the nine whose files may be referred to the RCMP.
The three men took over the Senate’s liaison with the AG’s office, after it had sent warning letters to those with questionable spending. They then decided that an outside arbiter, former Supreme Court justice Ian Binnie, would adjudicate any disputes over expense claims. The last time senators’ expenses were flagged by outside auditors, Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau were expelled from the Senate without pay and without a chance to plead their case properly.
Thursday, after the AG had delivered the audit to the Speaker, several Conservative senators told The Huffington Post Canada that the leadership should have told them they might have a personal stake in changing the process.
“I’ll let them explain the rationale,” said Sen. Bob Runciman, a former public safety minister in Ontario. “They haven’t it explained it to me. So I’ll let them explain it to you and to the rest of us.”
Runciman hadn’t seen the report and didn’t think he was flagged in it. Conservative Sen. Doug Black said he hadn’t seen the report either and also believes he has no controversial claims.
Black, like Runciman, said he was not aware that Housakos, Cowan or his leader, Carignan, had a dispute with the AG over expenses when the leaders came up with the arbitration process.
“This is news, and I would say, to be continued,” he said.
“I believe transparency is key, and I need to ensure that whatever transpires over the next short while meets the test that I have put on myself,” the senator from Alberta said.
That test, Black added, is “complete and open transparency and complete disclosure."
Black was the first senator to post his expenses on the Internet for public consumption. Runciman followed him shortly after.
Nova Scotia Senator Stephen Greene said things “would have been different” if senators had known the leadership had their own troubles with the AG.
Obvious questions are being raised about the process now, he said, suggesting that his confidence in the Senate leadership has been shaken.
Greene, who was also appointed by Stephen Harper, didn’t want to elaborate. But like many senators who feel they have done nothing wrong and for two years now have been subject to public attacks and ridicule for the deeds of others, Greene suggested this latest chapter is just another embarrassment the upper chamber didn’t need.
Housakos and Carignan did not respond to media requests for interviews.
But Cowan, the Liberal leader, told the media he had “respectful disagreement” with the AG over some travel claims in 2011 for $10,200. He said the travel had been related to issues he had spoken about in the Senate and introduced bills on — and the travel had been properly filed and compensation received. But the AG believed that since he no longer had supporting documentation for the trips, they were “private business” and not an appropriate use of Senate funds.
Cowan said he planned “absolutely” to refer the matter to Binnie. He suggested the new process is what should have been in place all along and used for Duffy, Brazeau and Wallin.
“I said at the time, this is inappropriate, we don’t have a process in place. We need a process to do this – the government is making up this process as we go along,” he said Thursday. “Two wrongs don’t make a right. Just because we didn’t get it right the first time, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get it right this time.”
Cowan suggested the three leaders fingered in the report had not sought to personally protect themselves and their salaries but rather had been working on developing the arbitration dispute resolution process for “some considerable time” under former speakers Noel Kinsella and Pierre-Claude Nolin.
Back on Nov. 5, 2013, Cowan had tried to refer Duffy’s, Wallin’s and Brazeau’s expenses to a special committee where the senators’ cases could be heard. At the time, he called the process being pushed by the Conservatives a “sham” done “purely for political purposes.” Only former senator Hugh Segal, and Wallin, argued for due process and sided with the minority Liberals. A handful of Tories, however, abstained, including: Don Meredith, Nancy Ruth, Don Plett, and John Wallace.
Carignan, who is now fingered by the AG, told reporters that day that the Grits were “closing their eyes on the behaviour of those senators.
“These senator have been found to have claimed inappropriate expenses. In our view, therefore, they should not be collecting a public paycheque,” Carignan said. “Public office holders should be held to the higher standard. The misconduct of these three senators calls for firm action, and that is what we have taken.”
Now, instead of his being suspended without pay, Carignan may have his expenses reviewed by an arbitrator. On Twitter, Carignan suggested that two years ago the process was different because it related to “a pattern of misconduct.” His expenses involve $3,000 in travel expenses incurred by a staffer, CTV reported Thursday.
Brazeau’s former advisor, Debby Simms, told HuffPost the situation is “curious.”
“How fascinating that when it is they who are in the cross-hairs, they suddenly appreciate the concept of due process — a precious right they vigorously denied Senators Brazeau, Duffy and Wallin,” she wrote in an email.
Two longtime Liberal senators, Alberta’s Grant Mitchell and Manitoba’s Maria Chaput, refused to answer questions about the report and their feelings about the arbitration process.
“I am not speaking about this, I signed a letter of confidentiality. I am not speaking about it. Period,” Mitchell told HuffPost.
Liberal Senator Jim Munson, however, said he has full confidence in Cowan and the Senate leadership.
Marjory LeBreton, former government leader in the Senate, told reporters: “I have nothing to say at this point. I’m sorry.”
LeBreton stepped down as leader in the summer of 2013 after the expense scandal involving Duffy, Brazeau and Wallin had exploded.
Expelling the three major sources of embarrassment for the Harper government had been a decision led by Carignan.
Duffy is currently on trial in Ottawa on 31 counts of fraud, breach of trust and bribery. Brazeau and Mac Harb, a former Liberal senator who was also singled for his questionable expenses but resigned from the Senate before he could be expelled, have both been charged with one count each of fraud and breach of trust. They are both awaiting trial.
Wallin is still under RCMP investigation but has not been charged.
The auditor general’s report on senators’ expenses will be released publicly Tuesday.
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