OTTAWA — Twenty-three NDP MPs could be on the hook for $1.17 million for breaking House of Commons rules and sending inappropriate electoral mailings to Canadians.
Senior staff at the House of Commons testified before a committee studying the NDP's use of taxpayer resources Wednesday evening. Conservative MPs and the lone Liberal member wanted to know how they could force NDP members to pay back money they believe was inappropriately spent on partisan electoral mail.
The board of internal economy, the secretive committee that administers the House of Commons, recently ruled the NDP MPs owe a combined $36,309 to the Commons for envelopes and printer toner. The board said the MPs owed another $1.13 million for the free postage MPs receive as franking privileges, but it could not direct Canada Post to recover the money.
Conservative MP Tom Lukiwski, the parliamentary secretary to the Government House Leader, suggested the 23 MPs who took part in the NDP mailing program could be on the hook for more than $50,000 of their own money.
But the chief financial officer of the Commons, Mark G. Watters, said he could only say for certain that MPs are personally liable for their part of the $36,309. He couldn't definitively say whether they would be forced to pay their part of the $1.13 million.
"The liability with respect to House resources would be individual and personal, it wouldn't be collective," he said.
"I can't speak for the Crown corporation, I can't speak for the department of transport, so I'm not sure how they would assess liability if any," he added.
Deputy law clerk and parliamentary counsel Richard Denis told the committee the MPs could have their budgets docked or frozen until they pay back the money.
The NDP has vowed to fight the board's ruling in court.
Denis also said the NDP would not be allowed to help the MPs with the reimbursement.
"In my opinion, I would say no because there is no link between the House and the NDP. And again House resources are provided to each members individually," he explained.
Denis confirmed that the NDP mailings, which were sent using franked envelopes given to MPs but printed outside the House of Commons, were never seen by House administration.
He also confirmed that had there not been a complaint to the board, the administration would never have known the NDP's mailings were in contravention of the rules.
Lukiwski suggested the rules might need to change to ensure political parties weren't sending campaign literature out and sticking the taxpayer with the postage without the House knowing.
"If a party wanted to deliberately mislead House administration, it could do so by following the model we've seen by the NDP — use an outside printer; pay for it yourself … then put them into franked envelopes," he said.
NDP MP David Christopherson called the committee a "witch hunt" that was "going on meeting after meeting after meeting." He tried to move a motion calling for the auditor general to review all MP mailings since 2010, but the committee chair, Conservative MP Joe Preston, ruled it out of order. Preston said it was beyond the scope of the House affairs and procedure committee.
Christopherson questioned why this meeting was okay but it was not okay to do a formal review of everybody's mailing.
"Everybody equal, out in public. It's what we've been asking for for so long," he said.
Commons staff, however, had previously told the committee that calling the auditor general was the responsibility of the board. The officials also appeared to invite the NDP to complain about other parties' perceived partisan mail, telling committee members that all complaints to the board are investigated.
Canada Post has yet to request any cost recovery for the NDP mailings.
Canada Post spokesman Jon Hamilton said the Crown corporation had no update to provide on its "detailed review of all commercial and regulatory aspects" of the board's decision and any compliance issues with regard to the Canada Post Corporation Act. The Act governs provisions for government mail but, unlike the Commons, has no strict rule on what constitutes inappropriate mail.
Canada Post receives $22.2 million in government funds to cover parliamentary mailings and products for the blind which are also postage-free.
Check the gallery below for the 23 NDP MPs who could be forced to pay back the money.