09/04/2012 03:30 EDT | Updated 11/04/2012 05:12 EST

Doug Black, University of Calgary's Chair's Spending Habits Questioned by Taxpayer Watchdog Group


CALGARY - A taxpayers group is taking the University of Calgary to task for board expenses, including executive-class flights and $500-a-night hotel rooms, rung up by the chairman of the school's board.

Doug Black, who is also a senator-in-waiting in Alberta, has repaid the university nearly $5,400 for airfare expenses the institution says were "processed in error."

But Scott Hennig, Alberta director of the Canadian Taxpayers' Federation, is raising questions about the price of hotel rooms claimed as part of the $28,000 billed to the university and revealed through Freedom of Information laws.

"We got tipped off," said Hennig in an interview from Edmonton. The tipster advised the group to compare Black's and former board chair Jack Perraton's expenses.

"It's a trend of $300, $400 or $500 hotel rooms that (Black) stays in."

Hennig said the University of Calgary's travel expense procedure dictates that flights shorter than five hours must be economy class. Hotels are to be "standard room rates" and that travellers are to stay "where preferred or discount rates – or the equivalent of such rates – are available whenever possible."

The claims show a $1,268.19 bill for a room at the Houston Four Seasons for two nights and another $1,261.71 from the Ritz Carleton for a two-night stay in Toronto.

Hennig said Perraton, who served as chair from April, 2007 through December 2010, claimed a total of $434.01 in expenses during his 3 1/2-year term. Black was appointed in February 2011.

An official with the University of Calgary says the error in payment was discovered in the audit and believes that the institution is doing a good job keeping an eye on dollars and cents.

However, Jonathon Gebert, vice-president of finance and services, didn't offer an explanation as to why Black didn't find cheaper hotel rooms during his trips.

"I can talk to you about the financial controls and the policies and that's all I can talk to you about," he said in an interview Tuesday afternoon.

"We do have a policy that applies to all university funds related to travel and hospitality and we've been working hard on our policies. We will be looking at our hospitality and travel expense policy as a normal course of business."

The institution issued a written release in which it said the airfare mistake was identified in an audit done in June.

"The first quarterly audit review of the chair's expenses, which commenced in June 2012, identified an error in payment to the chair, Doug Black. Specifically, the chair was reimbursed for business-class travel which fell outside of the university's Hospitality and Travel Expenses Policy," reads the release.

"The chair was informed of the error and he promptly reimbursed the University for the difference between business-class fares and the economy fares allowed for by university policy for all of his air travel since becoming chair."

Hennig said the audit was done only after the University of Calgary received the freedom of information request.

Hennig thinks Black should have to repay back anything above the costs of a standard room at hotels like the Four Seasons in Houston and the Ritz Carleton in Toronto. He also questions the need for some of the expenses.

"He also flew to Ottawa for the installation of Michaelle Jean at the University of Ottawa and billed it to the U of C even though Mr. Black is the chair of the Michaelle Jean Foundation — that's probably who should be paying for that one," said Hennig.

"I think the U of C would be well served by going through his other expenses with a fine-tooth comb and seeing which ones meet the guidelines."