OTTAWA - The Speaker of the House of Commons has contradicted NDP claims that he approved the use of parliamentary resources to send bulk mail into ridings facing byelections and to pay staff in satellite party offices.
Andrew Scheer said Thursday that no one checked with him about New Democrat MPs using free parliamentary mailing privileges to send partisan missives into four ridings just before byelections were called late last year.
"Nobody did," he told the procedure and House affairs committee.
Similarly, he said the NDP did not check with him about pooling MPs' Commons budgets to pay for staff working in satellite party offices in Montreal, Quebec City and Toronto.
"I'll simply say nobody checked with me personally or anyone in my office," Scheer said.
The speaker's comments contradict NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and other New Democrats, who've maintained the Speaker approved both schemes.
"We checked and double-checked with the Speaker before going that route," Mulcair said in March about the bulk mailings.
"We got approval from the Speaker," deputy leader Megan Leslie said in April about the satellite offices.
Scheer's denial came Thursday as he testified at a committee about the financial administration of the Commons. Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux took the opportunity to ask about mailings and satellite offices, much to the annoyance of New Democrats on the committee who tried to have his questions ruled out of order.
After Scheer's testimony, Lamoureux said it appears Mulcair "attempted to mislead Canadians."
"Someone's not telling the truth here," he added.
Scheer later acknowledged getting a letter from NDP whip Nycole Turmel just over a year ago, asking him to clarify the rules regarding MPs sending bulk mailings outside their own ridings.
Turmel's letter did not, however, ask about specific mailings or about sending bulk mail into ridings facing an imminent byelection call — the issue at the heart of Conservative and Liberal claims that the NDP flyers late last year were an improper use of parliamentary resources.
On those specific mailings, Scheer reaffirmed in a note to the committee that he was not consulted.
"To avoid any confusion with regard to my answer to Mr. Lamoureux's first question, which related to my knowledge of a specific set of mailings, I wish to confirm that my answer to his question stands," Scheer wrote.
Mulcair was grilled by the same committee earlier this month about the mailings and the satellite offices. He repeatedly maintained the NDP did nothing wrong but was being subjected to a partisan gang-up by the Conservatives and Liberals.
He said the bulk mailings into four ridings were sent before byelections were called, although some arrived in mailboxes after the writs had been dropped. And he showed examples of similar partisan bulk mailings sent out by Liberal and Conservative MPs.
Elections Canada has said there is no law governing partisan mailings posted prior to a byelection call. However, Conservatives and Liberals on the secretive all-party board of internal economy, which oversees the financial operation of the Commons, have asked the watchdog agency to re-examine whether the NDP flyers should have been counted as byelection campaign expenses.
The board has also amended its bylaws to prohibit MPs from using their Commons budgets to pay staff who work in offices owned or leased by a political party. It is continuing to investigate the NDP's satellite offices and could eventually order the NDP to reimburse as much as $3 million.
The 14 staffers who used to work in the satellite offices are still on the Commons payroll but are no longer working out of party-paid premises.
Mulcair maintains MPs and their staff "are allowed to work wherever we want" — not just on Parliament Hill and in MPs' constituency offices, as the rival parties contend.
A spokesman for the leader said Thursday that deputy leader Leslie "misspoke" when she claimed the Speaker had approved the satellite office scheme.
Mulcair has insisted that Commons administrative officials knew and approved of the satellite office staffing arrangement. However, Commons clerk Audrey O'Brien has said, in a letter to the committee, that officials had no idea the staffers were not working in Ottawa.
New Democrats on the committee were furious Thursday that Lamoureux questioned Scheer about his role in the matter, when the Speaker was supposed to be testifying about spending estimates for the Commons.
Afterward, New Democrat MP David Christopherson refused to answer questions about Scheer's testimony.
"I'm not going to allow ourselves to be sucked into some Liberal sleaze manoeuvre that takes them to their favourite subject, mud-slinging," he said, adding it's a "complex issue" that needs to be put in context.
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