10/10/2013 05:10 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 18:58 EST

Politicians' expense claims: Lessons in reining them in

Two high-level officials challenged politicians about the secrecy and excesses of their expenses: one failed, the other succeeded, offering valuable lessons in transparency and accountability.

The experiences of Gordon Barnhardt, a former clerk of the Senate, and Nova Scotia Auditor General Jacques Lapointe illustrate how the coziness of behind-closed-doors collegial oversight can create a culture that enables fiddling with expenses.

Gordon Barnhardt, a 20-year clerk of the Saskatchewan legislature, was appointed clerk of the Senate, the top administrative job in the upper chamber, in 1989 by former prime minister Brian Mulroney.

Barnhardt, who spoke by phone from his office at the University of Saskatchewan, said Mulroney explicitly gave him the mandate to clean up the Senate. So Barnhardt tried.

"For each new senator that came in, I would meet with them and explain the rules and how it was operating, trying to bring them over to what I thought was the right way of thinking," he said, relating how he instructed new entries to be careful with taxpayers' money when they filled out expense claims.

But within a short period of time, Barnhardt said, he discovered "there was a sense of entitlement, that I'm senator, and this is what I should be receiving," adding that not all senators had this attitude.

Some senators misused the travel system

“But I'd say to some, 'Listen, first off, we're spending taxpayers' money.… How would you feel if this became a public issue?

"They'd say, 'We can't be removed. Even the prime minister can't remove us.'"

One practice that bothered Barnhardt was how some senators manipulated the travel point system.

The point system, in which one point is worth a return flight, is used by senators to fly between Ottawa and their homes in the provinces they represent. Senators are issued 64 points a year.

"They could, by going to a kind of subcommittee, arrange it so an extra leg on the trip could be added on. You could go to Paris, or whatever, and you had to show in some way you were doing Senate work, but as long as you went from Ottawa to, say, Saskatoon, the extra leg of the trip could be added into it," he explained.

Current Senate rules prohibit stopovers outside Canada, unless it would be a cheaper option.

But back then, when Barnhardt tried to complain to the senators' secretive committee of internal economy, he was often overruled. A paper he wrote suggesting Senate administration staff be the  enforcers of expenses policy rather than the committee was ignored.

After five years Barnhardt left his job as Senate clerk without having brought about much change. In 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper asked him to be lieutenant-governor of Saskatchewan for a five-year term. 

"I've been in public service for just about 45 years spending other peoples' money," Barnhardt said, "and I feel very conscious and prudent with the spending of that money."

N.S. auditor didn't ask permission to proceed

Nova Scotia Auditor General Jacques Lapointe braved the lions' den when he decided to examine the expense accounts of members of the provincial legislature.

After an expense scandal in Newfoundland and Labrador that resulted in four provincial members going to jail, Lapointe decided to look at politicians’ expenses in his own province.

"I thought if I asked, I'd be refused," said Lapointe in an interview. "So I just informed them I was doing it."

Starting in 2009, Lapointe went back three years scouring expense claims. He found one MLA had claimed for a generator worth $8,000. Another bought 11 computers, and another purchased a $2,500 television.

"And we asked him where they were, and he didn't have them." Lapointe said. "We went into their offices. I have pretty broad powers. I can subpoena if I need to. So we just went in.

"Where is the generator that is supposed to be sitting here?" he or his staff asked. "Or the TV? Turns out, it's at home."

Lapointe found cases of outright fraud, where MLAs claimed items two or three times. Other expenses were technically allowable, but judged by him to be unreasonable. Others were what he called errors in judgment.

"A $700 espresso machine for your office? How to make that call?…You really like espresso? I don't know."

Lapointe said the vagueness of the rules, drawn up and enforced by MLAs who sat on a behind-closed-doors committee, created the problem. "They were actually fostering improper spending.… They were enabling it, promoting it. And they tempted people to get things. They created a culture."

4 MLAs were charged and convicted

His report, published in February 2010, was a bombshell, and resulted in four members being charged and convicted. One, former NDP MLA Trevor Zinck, was sentenced Wednesday to four months in prison for fraud and breach of trust over expenses.

These days, Lapointe said, the meetings of the MLAs’ board of internal economy are public, and politicians post their expenses online in detail.

"Posting of the summaries of expenses doesn't do anything at all," he said, referring to the current system in Ottawa in which MPs and senators post their quarterly expenses online.

Lapointe added that currently in Nova Scotia, a "tough group of public servants who work for the Speaker" enforce the new rules for MLAs' expenses. Before, he said, "Some of the MLAs were bullying staff" about objections to their claims.

The new enforcement regime and the public’s ability to inspect members’ spending claims online meant  "expenses charged by MLAs went way down," Lapointe said.

In Ottawa, MPs have pledged to study a motion that recommends replacing their secretive and rarely public board of internal economy that has the final word on MPs’ expenses. A report will be issued in December.

The Senate has asked the federal auditor general, Michael Ferguson, who also has subpoena powers, to conduct an audit of senators' expenses, but he's not expected to report for at least a year, though he may periodically issue updates.