05/14/2012 03:41 EDT | Updated 07/14/2012 05:12 EDT

Veterans board chair charges to attend UK lectures where wife was participant

OTTAWA - The chairman of an embattled veterans review board billed taxpayers on two occasions to attend high-brow lectures in Britain where his wife was a participant.

John Larlee has regularly attended the Cambridge Lecture series, but went on the federal government's dime in 2009 and 2011.

The prominent events at Queen's College at Cambridge University north of London, attract movers and shakers in the British and Canadian political and legal communities.

Set amid the neatly manicured lawns, waterways and stone ramparts of the centuries-old university, the lectures have featured the likes of former prime minister Paul Martin and Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin of the Supreme Court of Canada.

Larlee's bills for both trips, listed as professional development in the expense records of the Veterans Review and Appeal board, totalled $7,285.97, including flights, accommodations and meals.

His wife, Justice Margaret Larlee of the New Brunswick Court of Appeal, has been a fixture at the events.

She was moderator of a panel on ending rape in both war and politics at the 2009 conference and led a discussion in 2011 on the role of Israel's supreme court in the fight against terrorism.

Justice Larlee was also featured at the 2007 lectures, discussing commissions of inquiry and whether they are worth the money. Her husband accompanied her that year as well, but paid for the trip out of his pocket, according to a veterans board spokeswoman.

The chairman refused an interview request, but Danielle Gauthier, who speaks for the independent agency, says the trips were justified.

"His daily work involves providing leadership to a board of independent adjudicators who make decisions based on evidence and according to the legislation that governs disability benefits for veterans," Gauthier said in an email statement to The Canadian Press.

"The lectures provide valuable insight into the global and common challenges of adjudicating from the perspective of leading lawyers, academics and judges from Canada and around the world."

Some topics discussed during Larlee's taxpayer-funded trips included nation-building in Afghanistan, Asia after the (financial) crash, Canada's response to terrorism, lectures on the rule of law, sovereignty and the responsibility to protect, the justice system in Tanzania and the unwritten principles of the constitution and minorities.

Board records show Larlee has attended five other conferences in Canada — at a total cost of 6,757.67 — since he was appointed in 2009. These included a Canadian Bar Association meeting in 2009.

Gauthier said the Cambridge conference expenses were paid by the veterans board in accordance with federal Treasury Board guidelines, which require justification for international travel.

Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney signed off on the 2011 trip, as his predecessor Jean-Pierre Blackburn did for the 2009 conference, officials said.

"We absolutely did not know his wife was a participant," added one senior official, who spoke on the condition of not being named.

Board officials, also speaking on background, emphasized that Justice Larlee's expenses were not covered by the agency and they declined to talk about how they were paid.

The review board, an independent agency where ex-soldiers go to have appeals over their benefits claims heard impartially, was criticized last week by the veterans ombudsman for not giving applicants the benefit of the doubt.

It has also been immersed in a privacy scandal in which a sitting member claimed his diagnosis of post traumatic stress was whispered around and used to smear him because his decisions were deemed too generous.

Both opposition parties were aghast the chairman was allowed to attend the lectures, especially at a time when the government was in deficit-fighting mode and preaching restraint.

"Get serious," said NDP veterans critic Peter Stoffer. "It is the board that has said no to people, many, many times and here we have the head of the board, travelling to an overseas conference that in my personal view appears to have absolutely nothing to with veterans benefits. And it appears to be a junket."

Liberal veterans critic Sean Casey demanded Larlee appear before the Commons veterans affairs committee to justify the trip. The committee is already planning hearings on the agency.

"He's exercised poor judgment and should provide a full explanation," said Casey.

Blaney did not comment, but a spokeswoman said the onus is on the chairman to answer for his expenses.

“The Veterans Review and Appeal Board is an arms-length, quasi-judicial body that serves to provide our veterans with an unbiased, independent level of appeal," said Codi Taylor in an email note.

She noted Blaney "expects the board to be responsible and show respect for taxpayers’ dollars at all times.”

Treasury Board guidelines require recurring travel and conference events be validated for "continued relevance, value for money and the efficient and economical use of resources."

Whether that validation has taken place is unclear.

Larlee's predecessor, Victor Marchand, took no trips outside of the country in his six years leading the board and during that time attended only a handful of conferences that could be considered professional development.