OTTAWA — Justin Trudeau's two top aides are repaying a "significant portion" of the $207,000 they received for moving expenses, hoping to douse a controversy that has plagued the Liberal government since the outset of the fall parliamentary sitting.
The prime minister's chief of staff Katie Telford and principal secretary Gerald Butts posted a joint statement on their Facebook pages Thursday, taking full responsibility for the expenses and apologizing for all the fuss.
The pair, who moved separately to Ottawa from Toronto after the 2015 election, said they followed all the rules of a federal relocation policy that's been in place for senior political staff and public servants "for decades," noting that the prime minister has now asked Treasury Board to craft a new policy.
"As this process relates to us, we were eligible to be reimbursed for a bunch of costs that we don't feel comfortable about," Butts and Telford said in the statement.
Gerald Butts, principal secretary to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a cabinet retreat on Jan. 18. (Photo: Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)
"While the rules were clear and we followed them, we both know that's not always enough."
The pair offered a detailed breakdown of their moving expenses, which totalled $126,669 for Butts and $80,382 for Telford. And they pledged to accept reimbursement only for "the actual cost" paid to third parties to move their families and their belongings to the nation's capital.
Consequently, both will reimburse the government for something called "personal cash payout" — $23,373 for Telford and $20,299 for Butts.
"When we reviewed these costs, we decided that the amount called 'personalized cash payout,' which is for miscellaneous moving expenses, is unreasonable," they said.
Butts will further reimburse the bulk of the $25,141 for the land transfer tax associated with his family's new Ottawa home, having decided it's "unreasonable" to be reimbursed for the tax "over and above what would have been the cost of the tax on a home at the average house price in Ottawa for 2016."
A PMO spokeswoman said Butts' total reimbursement amounts to $41,618.
Katie Telford attends an event in Ottawa, March 9, 2015. (Photo: Matthew Usherwood/The Canadian Press)
The Conservatives have been having a field day with the issue since the moving expenses were revealed by the government Monday in response to a written question from a Tory MP.
"We know that some people will think that any amount for relocation is unreasonable and that there never should have been such a policy in the first place," says the statement, which also notes that the existing relocation policy was last updated by the previous Conservative government in 2011.
"We take full responsibility for this having happened and because of that we are sorry," the pair said. "We've learned a lot of lessons over the past few days and we commit to continuing to improve transparency in the future."
The government disclosed earlier this week that taxpayers paid $1.1 million to move some four dozen political staffers to Ottawa after Trudeau's Liberals won power last fall — but it was the $207,000 total, which later turned out to belong to Telford and Butts, that raised the most eyebrows.
The Conservative Opposition smelled blood, particularly given the traditional Liberal vulnerability on matters of what Tory MP Blaine Calkins described as the governing party's "sense of entitlement."
The Conservatives weren't letting the government off the hook late Thursday, demanding an explanation from Trudeau over why the expense claims were approved in the first place.
"This is about his judgment, because Mr. Trudeau signed off on this sweetheart deal," Calkins said in an emailed statement.
"We did not create those rules. We are simply following them."
"This outrageous abuse of public funds is unacceptable and taxpayers won't stand for it," Calkins added.
Trudeau has insisted all week that the Liberals followed all the rules.
"We did not create those rules," he said at one point. "We are simply following them."
How much help political staff get with relocation costs is at the discretion of each minister; eligible expenses include shipping vehicles and household effects, temporary accommodations, meals, house-hunting expenses, legal and real estate fees and costs related to quitting an existing job.
The Prime Minister's Office accounted for the heftiest relocation bill. Other big spenders included:
- Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains's office, which spent more than150,000 to move two staffers;
- Global Affairs Minister Stephane Dion's office, spending just over146,000 for nine staffers;
- Environment Minister Catherine McKenna's office, which spent more than116,000 for four staffers;
- Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould's office, which moved six staffers to the tune of nearly114,000.
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