05/10/2012 12:27 EDT | Updated 07/10/2012 05:12 EDT

Old Port of Montreal president defends South Pacific trip, expenses

OTTAWA - The president of the Old Port of Montreal defended controversial spending at the Crown Corp., including a trip to the South Pacific, saying the popular tourism site has been the victim of a smear campaign in the media.

But Conservative and New Democrat MPs scrutinizing Claude Benoit's expenses made it clear they thought some of her spending did not pass muster.

Benoit acknowledged she had not met with any local officials as she visited sites of interest in Australia and New Zealand, including a ferris wheel, during a mainly personal trip abroad.

"There are millions of Canadian taxpayers in this country that will look at a 29-day trip to Australia, which I would argue was an excuse to put through to the taxpayers a significant portion of the expenses for a personal trip," said Dean Del Mastro, parliamentary secretary to the prime minister.

"There was no justifiable cause for it. ... What I would say to you is: in the future, pay for your own vacations."

Benoit's expenses were splashed across the cover of the Journal de Montreal last month, in stories that detailed spending on catering, board meetings at a resort town, thousands spent annually on car rentals, and a $10,100 trip to Australia and New Zealand.

Benoit, who was appointed in 2000, defended all the spending, underlining that the expenses had gone through the proper approval processes at the Old Port. She said that the $1,000 a month she spends on car rentals is part of her benefits package, and has nothing to do with taking her to and from her home only a few kilometres away from the Old Port.

She said the catering was for snack lunches held for hundreds of volunteers and staff over a year, and that it was not inappropriate for the Port's board to meet occasionally outside of Montreal — in two cases in Mont Tremblant, a posh Quebec ski resort.

"Unfortunately, the reputation of this important institution is today unjustly tainted by erroneous or out-of-context allegations, run one after another in a unseemly effort to elicit outrage," Benoit said in her opening statement.

"Following these allegations, the corporation's books are open to the auditor general in order to undertake a special audit requested by (the public works) minister. We welcome this positive initiative that will confirm the probity of the management of the Old Port of Montreal."

But it was the December 2008-January 2009 trip to Australia and New Zealand that stuck in the craw of MPs. Benoit had been on a month-long trip to the South Pacific, and billed the Old Port for 10 days of work at a cost of $10,100, including a portion of her plane ticket and part of a cruise around New Zealand.

"I'd like to ask about the idea of a South Seas cruise as part of fact-finding," said New Democrat Charlie Angus.

"I've never heard that. Is that a common way to travel, in a south seas ocean liner? I've never done it, I don't think cabinet ministers even do that."

Benoit explained that she had been visiting sites of particular interest to the Old Port, such as a very popular Star Wars exhibit that would later come to Montreal. But Benoit had not met with any local museum or civic officials during her trip, instead taking photos and notes on her own and producing seven reports totalling 100 pages.

Gerry Weiner, who began his stint as chairman of the Crown's board in 2009, said he and the other directors fully support Benoit and her "exemplary record."

He said he and the board were "outraged by the maliciously relentless nature of the attack, we're outraged by the unfairness of the remarks, and outraged by the falsehoods, half-truths and insinuations we read, and we vigorously denounce the hatchet job to which the Old Port of Montreal and its CEO were subjected."

But later, Weiner acknowledged that he hadn't read Benoit's reports following her trip to Australia and New Zealand, and that the protocol for approving trips had changed since he had taken up the post.

Weiner himself faced questions from the MPs. His predecessor, Bernard Roy, told The Canadian Press last year that the so-called independent process for selecting board presidents was a "fiction," and had suddenly become expendable to the Conservative government.

Weiner responded to questions about his appointment by emphasizing his background as former mayor of a Montreal-area suburb, as a former federal cabinet minister, and as pharmacist.

Liberal MP Denis Coderre suggested that Benoit is being surreptitiously pushed out, alleging the government is seeking to change the direction of the Old Port to allow for private development in what is mainly a tourism and cultural site.

A consultant appointed by the Public Works Department is currently studying the Old Port, Weiner revealed.

The Old Port of Montreal is located on a 40-hectare piece of land along the St. Lawrence River, and over the last 30 years has become one of Canada's most popular tourism destinations.

It features bike paths, an archeological and a science and technology museum, exhibition spaces and recreation activities, all at the base of the cobblestoned streets of Old Montreal.