OTTAWA - The minister responsible for Canada Post says she will ensure New Democrat MPs pay back "every single penny" of free parliamentary postal privileges used to send out almost 2 million partisan missives.
Transport Minister Lisa Raitt spoke Thursday with the head of Canada Post, Deepak Chopra, to make sure the post office has a plan for recovering $1.13 million in franked NDP mail.
"Rest assured, every single penny that was misspent by the NDP will be paid back to hard working Canadian taxpayers," she said in a statement issued by her office.
Later Thursday, Raitt said she has not issued a directive to the Crown corporation to recover the cost of the free NDP mass mailings, which she is entitled to do under the Canada Post Corporation Act.
"It was just a phone call to ensure that they understood the issue and that they'd be looking into it. That's it."
She said she's satisfied that the post office is taking the matter seriously.
Raitt's intervention followed a verdict late Wednesday by the secretive, multi-party board of internal economy that 23 New Democrat MPs improperly used parliamentary resources to send 1.8 million partisan mailings to households in 26 ridings, including four that were in the midst of byelections late last year.
The board, which oversees the finances of the House of Commons and sets rules for MPs' spending, ordered the NDP MPs to reimburse $36,000 in direct mailing costs to the Commons.
It said it did not have the power to compel the MPs to reimburse Canada Post for misuse of $1.13 million in free mailing privileges, known as franking, but said they have an obligation to do so.
The NDP maintains it has done nothing wrong and is the victim of a partisan gang-up by Conservative members of the board of internal economy, aided and abetted by the Liberals. The party intends to challenge the board's ruling in court.
"In a court of law, this ridiculous witch-hunt process is certainly not going to stand up," asserted NDP House leader Peter Julian.
Julian conceded challenging the privilege of Parliament to set its own rules "may be a grey area." But citing renowned constitutional lawyer Julius Grey, he said any attempt by Canada Post, which is required by law to allow MPs to send mail free of charge, to recover the allegedly misused franking privileges would be "very clearly part of the public domain and subject to legal process."
Raitt's intervention with Canada Post "almost adds an element of comedy to this witch hunt," Julian added. He noted that the minister has repeatedly refused to intervene in the post office's decision to phase out urban home mail delivery, claiming that Canada Post is an independent, arm's length corporation.
"So, there's nothing we can do for the 5 million Canadians that are going to end up losing postal services but she intervenes with Canada Post on a Conservative witch hunt. I mean, it certainly shows where the priorities for the Conservatives are," Julian said.
A Canada Post spokesperson said the corporation is now reviewing "all commercial and regulatory aspects" of the board of internal economy's decision.
"This will be done in a timely manner and include compliance with the Canada Post Corporation Act, which contains the provisions for government mail," Jon Hamilton said in a statement.
Transport Canada gives Canada Post an annual subsidy of $22 million to help defray the cost of free government mail.
Conservatives, who've been on the receiving end of NDP Leader Tom Mulcair's prosecutorial grilling on the Senate expenses scandal, took every opportunity Thursday to needle the NDP about the allegedly improper mailings, an issue the Tories evidently hope will push the official Opposition off its ethical high horse.
Throughout question period, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his ministers used almost every query from New Democrats, no matter what the subject, to segue to the mailing controversy.
"The real question that Canadians are asking is when the NDP is going to return the public money that it took completely illicitly to use on partisan mailings and partisan offices under the guise of parliamentary spending," Harper admonished at one point.
"The NDP knows, from top to bottom, that this was inappropriate, incorrect and fraudulent, and should do the right thing and return the money."
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