OTTAWA — Senator Carolyn Stewart Olsen’s controversial expense claims may not get a second look after all.
Most of the Conservative senator’s secondary residence claims won’t be reviewed by the auditor general in the current scope of his audit, The Huffington Post Canada has learned.
Auditor General Michael Ferguson’s review of all senators' expense claims will only cover two fiscal years, ranging from April 1, 2011 to March 31, 2013.
Stewart Olsen’s contentious claims date back to 2009 until early 2011, shortly after she was appointed by Stephen Harper to the upper chamber. She had previously served as the Prime Minister’s director of strategic communications and was a longtime Ottawa resident.
Although she owned a condo in Ottawa, she claimed New Brunswick as her primary residence and expensed overnight costs and per diems while in the capital before selling her apartment in May 2011.
While Stewart Olsen’s older secondary residence claims won’t be included in the current range of the audit, the auditor general’s office says Ferguson may still opt to look into earlier expenses.
NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus told HuffPost it was unfortunate that the auditor general limited the initial investigation to a very narrow period, given the extent of the Senate spending scandal.
“Canadians are not going to be satisfied by the failure to investigate misspending and potential defrauding of the taxpayer in the years before 2011,” he said.
The Senate's audit sub-committee reports to the powerful Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration committee which is headed by senators Gerald Comeau, George Furey and Stewart Olsen.
Conservative Senator Elizabeth Marshall, who heads the the audit sub-committee, would not discuss the terms of the audit or whether Stewart Olsen had been part of discussions on the audit’s reach.
Stewart Olsen did not return calls or emails for comment.
A spokesperson for the auditor general said Ferguson had consulted with the “entities subject to an audit” but that ultimately the decision over the scope of the audit was his.
Ghislain Desjardins said the specific terms of the audit would be kept under wraps until the report is public.
A review of Senator Pamela Wallin’s expenses by Deloitte originally looked at her travel expense claims dating back to April 1, 2011 but was later expanded to include all claims by the senator from January 1, 2009 onwards.
Deloitte also examined the expenses of Senators Mike Duffy, Mac Harb and Patrick Brazeau between April 1, 2011 and September 30, 2012.
The auditor general’s office has already launched its audit of all senators’ expenses. It plans to table three interim reports. The last report is expected to be completed by December 2014.
Conservative Senator Michel Rivard told HuffPost he was told the auditor general picked the two-year time frame because he only had the resources to devote that much time to it.
“It’s not up to me to decide whether it was the right call or not,” Rivard said.
The Liberal leader in the Senate said he was not informed about the particulars of Ferguson's audit.
“I don’t know how he chose that period or why it was chosen,” Jim Cowan said.
The chair of the Internal Economy committee, Senator Gerald Comeau, noted that Ferguson could reach back further in time if flags were raised during the initial audit.
“He is not limited,” Comeau said.
On Wednesday, Comeau said it would be up to Senate finance administrators to flag any concerns to the auditor general’s office.
In a Sept. 26 interview, Stewart Olsen told HuffPost that she did not meet the current residency requirements when she was appointed as a New Brunswick senator in 2009. Those requirements were introduced after the senate expenses scandal broke in late 2012 and mandate a provincial driver's licence or health card as proof of primary residency.
But Stewart Olsen said she felt her situation was different than Mike Duffy, another senator who claimed housing expenses while living in Ottawa, because she actually lived in Cape Spear, N.B.
She maintained she was entitled to the $28 a night allocation for housing and the $86.35 per diems, even on days the Senate wasn't sitting. Under current rules, senators are allowed to spend up to $22,000 a year on housing and per diem costs.
A review of her expense records in the fall of 2010 and early 2011 suggests Stewart Olsen claimed per diems on days the Senate did not sit, no committee or caucus meetings were held and she had no Senate business in Ottawa.
Stewart Olsen could not recall when she received proof of her residency in New Brunswick but said she had the documents this past winter when the Internal Economy committee asked all senators for proof of their principal residence, in the wake of the Duffy and Wallin controversies.
She told HuffPost that she would return any per diems she, or her staff, may have claimed in error. Days later, however, she said she had verified her expenses with the Senate finance administration and that nothing improper had been found.
"I welcome the auditor general's review of all senators' expenses," she said on Oct. 1.
Conservative Senator Fabian Manning sat in the Newfoundland and Labrador House of Assembly when the provincial auditor reviewed members’ spending. He says he hopes the auditor general's review means Canadians will look to the Conservatives as the party that sought reforms to the upper chamber.
“It’s always uncomfortable when you are a sitting member and your colleagues are under investigation and the auditor general is moving around. But I don’t think there is any other choice,” Manning said.