08/02/2013 03:00 EDT | Updated 10/01/2013 05:12 EDT

Nova Scotia auditor wants review of allowances in review of politician's claims

HALIFAX - The rules governing allowances for Nova Scotia's politicians are outdated, vague and need to be tightened, the province's auditor general said Friday after concluding an investigation into the housing claims of Liberal member Michel Samson.

Jacques Lapointe said Samson qualified for a $1,470 monthly allowance for a home he rents in Halifax, even though his wife works in the city and his child is registered in daycare.

Lapointe said the Elections Act determines someone's primary place of residence, and on that basis the member for the Cape Breton riding of Richmond did not violate the letter of the law.

"The decision on this is the result of a technicality," Lapointe told a news conference.

Lapointe said he didn't think the Elections Act is the legislation designed to settle questions of where a politician's primary residence is located.

He also raised questions about the appropriateness of politicians claiming travel allowances to go from their homes to their constituency offices, noting the regulations are too vague on the point.

"While this travel may be related to members' duties, it is no different from the daily commute of many Nova Scotians to perform their jobs," Lapointe said in his report on Samson's case.

Under the House of Assembly Act, a member is eligible to receive an allowance if he or she resides more than 40 kilometres from the legislature. Lapointe called the definition "outdated," saying it's clear that distance should be increased in an era when people can drive that distance in 30 minutes.

The issue of politicians' spending habits is sensitive in a province where four politicians have been found guilty in a spending scandal involving constituency expense accounts.

Lapointe said the province has brought in significant changes in response, but called on the government to review allowances now.

"The bits and pieces of legislation have gaps in them that would have been caught in a review and were not," he said. "They have to do that review now."

Finance Minister Maureen MacDonald said the government intends to follow through on Lapointe's recommendations.

"I have great respect for the auditor general and if he says there needs to be a review, then I think a review will be done," she said.

She said the government has made reforms to the expense system since the spending scandal, such as requiring politicians to provide receipts for any allowance they claim as well as the monthly online posting of members' spending.

"There have been a lot of changes," she said. "That's not to say there shouldn't be some more."

Samson said he agreed a review of the rules would be useful. But he disagreed with Lapointe's conclusion that he lives in both Arichat and Halifax, saying the report found he spent nine more days in Arichat than Halifax over a 27-month period.

Samson said he is considering whether he should continue to accept the monthly allowance for his house in Halifax.

Lapointe's report said Samson shouldn't receive money in the future because the rules state that members can only rent apartments if they live beyond the 40-kilometre zone and accept the monthly allowances.

Samson said he doesn't think that makes sense.

"I previously rented an apartment and then rented a house and it didn't cost taxpayers an extra cent," he said.

The report did flag about $564 in claims that Lapointe said were inappropriate because Samson charged mileage for trips from his home to an airport for vacation trips.

Samson said he has repaid that.