02/04/2015 06:30 EST | Updated 04/06/2015 05:59 EDT

NDP Satellite Offices: Mulcair's Party Faces Awkward Question

OTTAWA - New Democrat MPs insist they did nothing wrong when they used parliamentary resources to pay the salaries of employees in satellite party offices.

But they're now facing an uncomfortable question: if they did nothing wrong, why have they been negotiating an out-of-court settlement with the parliamentary body that's demanding they reimburse taxpayers for $2.75 million?

The question arose after the secretive, multi-party board of internal economy, which polices House of Commons spending, revealed late Tuesday that it is sending bills to 68 current and former NDP MPs, including Leader Tom Mulcair, who shared the cost of the satellite office scheme.

The NDP launched a court challenge after the board ruled last summer that its MPs had inappropriately used their Commons budgets to pay for 28 employees in party offices in Quebec City, Montreal and Toronto.

But the board revealed Tuesday that the court case was suspended in November, at the joint request of lawyers for the NDP and the board, to allow both sides to pursue a negotiated settlement.

NDP House Leader Peter Julian said the board initiated the negotiations, but multiple sources tell The Canadian Press it was the NDP which first sought to resolve the matter outside the courthouse.

"They approached us to suspend the Federal Court application that we'd made and we suspended it in good faith," Julian said after an NDP caucus meeting Wednesday, fielding repeated — and increasingly heated — questions on the matter.

However, he said Tuesday's decision to send bills to 68 MPs amounts to another partisan attack by Conservative and Liberal members of the board and will likely put an end to negotiations.

"We're going to have to look at our options, but I would say what we will want to do is take this to a real judge where rules of evidence apply, where there's actually the principle of natural justice, where you can actually have the kind of process that Canadians expect in a democracy."

Julian reiterated the NDP contention that partisanship has turned the board into a kangaroo court and that the party is the victim of a Conservative-Liberal gang-up.

But multiple sources, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on board matters, contradicted Julian's version of events. They said the lawyer for the NDP approached the board's lawyer in September to start talks on a settlement.

The sources also said that the NDP did not engage in serious talks, raising suspicions that the party was merely trying to delay the court proceedings in a bid to ensure the matter remains unresolved until after the coming election, scheduled for October.

In addition to the ruling on the satellite offices, the board has also ruled that New Democrat MPs wrongly used $1.17 million worth of free parliamentary mailing privileges to paper 26 ridings with 2 million partisan missives.

In that case, the board has ordered the MPs to reimburse $36,000 to the Commons and has urged Canada Post to recover the rest. That ruling is also the subject of the court challenge.

As well, the leader's office has been billed for $400,000 — some of it owed by former interim leader Nycole Turmel, the rest by Mulcair. The NDP House leader's office and whip's office have been billed $190,000 and $36,000 respectively, to be shared among a number of different occupants of those offices.

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