04/29/2015 10:11 EDT

Ministers' Regional Offices May Be Promoting Conservative Party: NDP

NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus says it's "a black hole of accountability."


OTTAWA — Conservative ministers may be using taxpayer-funded offices to promote the Conservative party rather than doing government work, opposition parties suggested this week.

“It’s a black hole of accountability,” NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus told The Huffington Post Canada. “We’ve never really been able to get a clear picture of what these ministers’ regional offices actually do.”

An email obtained by The Huffington Post Canada shows a “caucus liaison” employee in Finance Minister Joe Oliver’s ministerial office in Toronto informing Conservative MPs of upcoming events in the Greater Toronto Area with Defence Minister Jason Kenney.

“Good afternoon GTA Caucus,” begins an email from Rachel Strong, the “regional communications advisor and GTA caucus liaison,” whose salary is paid for by taxpayers.

“Minister Kenney will be attending several events this weekend throughout the GTA. I am forwarding this information to you directly as an FYI. If you would like further information regarding these events, please feel free to contact me,” she wrote on April 23.

The email lists five events over the past weekend in ridings across Toronto, Scarborough and Richmond Hill. According to her LinkedIn profile, Strong used to work for the Ontario PC Party as the executive assistant to the director of tour and operations for then-leader Tim Hudak.

Stephanie Rea, spokeswoman for Treasury Board President Tony Clement, told HuffPost caucus liaison staff are there to act as a link for all parliamentarians.

“They are available to all MPs. If somebody [an opposition MP or staffer] has a question, they are perfectly able to contact a caucus liaison person,” Rea said.

Outreach to all regional MPs isn’t necessarily one of their job functions, she added. “Some [ministers] use their caucus liaison in a different manner.”

But GTA NDP and Liberal MPs contacted by HuffPost said they could not recall ever hearing from Strong or any other “caucus liaison” staffer.

“What’s that?” asked Mike Sullivan, NDP MP for York South–Weston.

He said he has never heard from a caucus liaison but knows of several instances when Conservative MPs and ministers have been present in his riding without his knowledge.

“The ones that I found out about in time, I would go to,” he said, “but there has never been a courtesy call saying, ‘Oh, by the way, we are going to come make an announcement.’ That just doesn’t happen.”

“Have I ever been contacted by the minister’s regional office? That would be a very clear no,” Liberal MP for St. Paul’s Carolyn Bennett said.

One would think, Bennett said, that the caucus liaison would communicate with all MPs, not just Tories.

“They seem to be a resource to Conservative members only.”

"I have racked my brain and spoken to my excellent staff, and we have no recollection of having been given any notice by this government,” Liberal MP for Toronto Centre Chrystia Freeland told HuffPost.

She said she was once invited to attend an event in her riding with Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre at the St. James Cathedral, but it was the cathedral that invited her.

Liberal MP for Scarborough–Guildwood John McKay said he was told shortly after the Conservatives came to power in 2006, that if he showed up at the opening of a waterfront trail, the event with Conservative minister Peter Van Loan would be cancelled. McKay said he had been working on the project for 10 years.

“I didn’t show up. I didn’t want to spoil the party for the folks who had worked hard,” McKay said.

Angus, who represents a riding in northern Ontario, said he has never heard of a caucus liaison being paid as ministerial staff. He questioned whether the ministers’ regional offices — which have ballooned in size and expense — are doing official government work or work promoting the Conservative Party of Canada.

There are currently 16 Ministers’ Regional Offices (MRO) across Canada — up from 11 in 2008. Most are in provincial capitals, although there is an office in Vancouver rather than Victoria. The Conservatives opened several MROs since 2009, including offices in Kitchener, Ont., Charlottetown, Iqaluit, Yellowknife, and Whitehorse. They also relocated an office from Moncton to Fredericton.

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In a 2010 press release announcing the opening of the Kitchener office, Diane Finley, the regional minister for Southwestern Ontario — an important electoral battleground — said the office would allow the government to stay in touch with the community as it implements its Economic Action Plan.

“The location in Kitchener will allow me and my colleagues to meet locally with stakeholders, non-governmental organizations and other levels of government as we move forward with the government’s agenda,” she said.

Treasury Board guidelines state that MROs are for the use of all local and visiting ministers and officials conducting business in the region. Ministers must use their budgets to hire political staff in the MRO.

The department of Public Works oversees the offices and in most cases has at least two public servants on site. Public Works would not say how many political staff are hired and where they are located.

“The number of exempt staff varies per MRO depending on the needs of Ministers with regional responsibilities throughout the country,” spokeswoman Annie Trepanier wrote in an email. Exempt staff are political staff who are chosen by the minister or the Prime Minister’s Office to work in their offices but are paid for by taxpayers.

“MROs are used for the conduct of official government business only,” she said.

Treasury Board spokesman Michael Gosselin said the rules are intended to give ministers “the flexibility to configure the exempt staff complement, positions and titles to meet the demands of that minister or minister of state's portfolio.”

“We have no total numbers available, as each minister organizes their office to meet the demands of the portfolio,” he said.

In many cases, ministerial staff are located in areas that have no obvious link to their department’s official business. For example, documents tabled in Parliament last year reveal that Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney hired a staffer to work in Parkland County, just outside Edmonton, in 2011.

After he was appointed as justice minister, Peter MacKay hired a staff member to work in Truro, N.S., just outside his riding, along with two more to work in Halifax. The justice minister’s office never had a presence in the region before 2014. Heritage Minister Shelly Glover hired four staffers to work in Winnipeg, her home base, after she was appointed. In contrast, there were no staff listed for Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt anywhere outside Ottawa. Oliver’s Toronto ministerial office, where Strong works, was also not listed in the documents tabled.

Some departments, such as public safety, multiculturalism, and the Canada Economic Development for Quebec Regions also have regional offices where bureaucrats, rather than political staff, work.

The number of employees working in ministers offices jumped from 419 in 2004 to 549 in 2014.

Documents show that spending on MROs, not including leases, nearly doubled from $2.38 million in 2007-2008 to $4.17 million in 2012-2013. The increase occurred in part because of the opening of the Yellowknife office and the relocation of the Moncton office to Fredericton. In 2013-2014, the cost was $3.07 million.

According to the “Policies for Ministers’ Offices,” there are four job descriptions that include co-ordinating with caucus:

Rae, Clement’s spokeswoman, noted that individuals working in ministers’ offices are partisan political appointments.

“They are Conservative employees — not a Conservative, but they are exempt staff,” she said. “On a day-to-day basis, I don’t talk to the director of communications for the NDP.”

Even so, she said, that should not stop any of them from communicating with opposition MPs.

The Conservatives have come under scrutiny in the past for appointing failed candidates and campaign workers to work in their offices.

“We have had a lot of questions about the ministerial offices,” Angus said. “We see, in British Columbia, Conservative riding associations were getting press releases.”

The Esquimalt–Saanich–Sooke Conservative Association, for example, published reports “produced by the Minister’s Regional Office” that provided information to Tory riding associations about federal government news releases on activities and initiatives in their areas.

HuffPost found the Conservative riding association in Langley, B.C., was also advertising internships in the MRO.

“The Minister's Regional Office Internship program application process is now open!,” read one entry.

“This government really blurs the line on the obligations or the duties of what is government and what is the interest of the party,” Angus told HuffPost.

Angus’ party, the NDP, is also under fire for its use of taxpayer-paid staff in party offices located outside Ottawa. Sixty-eight current and former NDP MPs have been ordered by the House of Commons’ Board of Internal Economy to pay $2.75 million to the House to recoup the costs of the satellite offices. The NDP disputes the charges.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Freeland attended an event with Poilievre at St. James Cathedral.