04/24/2012 02:03 EDT | Updated 06/24/2012 05:12 EDT

Bev Oda: Hotel Expenses Put Minister In Hot Water, But She's Not The Top Tory Spender

OTTAWA - Bev Oda may be in hot water for her champagne tastes, but by no means is she the highest-spending member of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's cabinet.

That distinction goes to Gerry Ritz. The agriculture minister has racked up the biggest travel and hospitality tab of any of his Conservative colleagues in recent years, largely because of trade missions that have taken him all over the globe.

It has cost $271,489 since March 2010 to send Ritz to such far-flung destinations as Italy, Turkey, Indonesia and Japan. He just edged out Finance Minister Jim Flaherty to claim the top spot.

In a sign that the Tories may be circling the wagons over expenses, two spokeswomen defended their minister's spending with boiler-plate responses, identical right down to the misspelling of the word "utmost."

"Our government treats taxpayers' money with the upmost (sic) respect and we require that travel on government business be done at the lowest possible cost to taxpayers," Ritz's spokeswoman, Meagan Murdoch, wrote in an email.

"Canadian agriculture exports hit record levels last year at $44 billion and the agriculture and agri-food industry provides one in eight jobs. This is due, in part, to Agriculture Minister Ritz's steadfast commitment to help farmers earn their money from the marketplace, not the mailbox."

Travel and hospitality costs for Flaherty, who also regularly travels abroad for meetings, came to $270,119.

His spokeswoman, Mary Ann Dewey-Plante echoed her colleague on spending rules:

"Our government treats taxpayers' money with the upmost (sic) respect and we require that travel on government business be done at the lowest possible cost to taxpayers."

Defence Minister Peter MacKay rounded out the Top 3 with expenses of $265,286. Like Flaherty, MacKay's job frequently takes him to international conferences as well as hot spots where Canadian troops are deployed.

"This minister has overseen Canadian Forces actions in Afghanistan, Libya and Haiti, demonstrated Canada's leadership in the world at NATO meetings and other major international conferences, and made it a priority to be in the field with the men and women who serve and sacrifice in Canada's name," MacKay's spokesman, Jay Paxton, wrote in an email.

"As a government, travel costs are down 15 per cent compared to the former Liberal government and hospitality spending is down by 33 per cent."

Another world traveller, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, reported $170,676 in expenses. Some of his expenses date back to his days as minister of transport and minister of the environment.

Oda, minister of International Co-operation, ranked fifth among all members of cabinet, with a travel and hospitality tab of $168,639. As the minister responsible for co-ordinating Canada's aid efforts for the world's poorest people, she often travels to international conferences and development projects in the field.

She has been under fire over a costly hotel upgrade she made during a visit to London last June. She repaid the cost difference and apologized, but the controversy shone new light on how cabinet ministers handle their own budgets at a time when the government is slashing spending and cutting public-service jobs.

Ministers are often required to travel in Canada and abroad and there are rules in place to govern spending on these trips.

For example, first-class flights are allowed for trips that take longer than nine hours. Ministers can also fly first class if they will be stepping off the plane right into meetings, if there is no business-class option or if they have a medical condition.

The federal government regularly publishes travel and hospitality expenses for ministers, political staff and some senior officials. The Canadian Press compiled a list of two years' worth of those costs for members of Harper's cabinet to put Oda's spending into context.

The priciest single trip was a 2010 visit by former foreign affairs minister Lawrence Cannon, to Kazakhstan, the United Arab Emirates, Afghanistan, Vietnam and Hong Kong. The 10-day jaunt cost $35,058 in airfare and $1,074 in accommodations.

Gordon O'Connor, minister of state and chief government whip, had the lowest travel and hospitality tab, with only $3,386 in expenses over the two-year period.

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