06/09/2015 04:35 EDT | Updated 06/08/2016 05:59 EDT

Senate Expense Audit: Michael Ferguson Blasts Senators, Calls For Change

OTTAWA - Family funerals, fishing trips, hockey games and enough cellphone roaming charges to make a telecom CEO blush: Canada's auditor general laid bare the Senate's expense-account excesses Tuesday as he called for independent oversight to teach the upper chamber some respect for the public purse.

Michael Ferguson's 116-page report, released Tuesday, details a litany of expense claims that suggest a number of senators were oblivious to the costs they were racking up, or were otherwise cavalier in how they spent taxpayer dollars.

The report outlines some $991,917 in questionable spending — much of it on travel for which senators seemed to have little explanation.

Five specific cases involved the question of primary and secondary residences — the same issue that landed Mike Duffy, Mac Harb and Patrick Brazeau before the courts.

In a blistering critique, Ferguson described a "strongly held belief" among senators that they didn't need to justify their spending. That culture is what led to the current problems — problems, he said, that better oversight could have prevented, to say nothing of the audit's $23.6-million price tag.

"What struck me ... was the depth to which a number of senators simply felt that they didn't have to account for, or they didn't have to be transparent with, their spending," Ferguson said.

Among the expenses flagged by Ferguson:

— Some senators routinely claimed the cost of meals, even at events where meal options were made available; others expensed the cost of taking taxis for local trips easily covered on foot;

— Retired Conservative senator Donald Oliver expensed a flight for what the auditors say was a fishing trip;

— Former Speaker Noel Kinsella claimed $5,663 to attend his brother-in-law's funeral in northern Ontario. His rationale? He only attended because he's a senator.

Nine files have been referred to the RCMP for possible criminal investigation, including two sitting senators: Conservative Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu and Liberal Colin Kenny, who now face a probe by the Senate ethics officer. A further 17 senators will fight the findings of Ferguson's report; depending on the result, they may be forced to repay thousands of dollars in dubious claims.

In an echo of the scandal that landed Duffy in court, five senators — Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu, Sharon Carstairs, Rose-Marie Losier-Cool, Bill Rompkey, and Rod Zimmer — were flagged for claiming a housing allowance to which Ferguson concluded they were not entitled.

All five have already been referred to the RCMP because more investigation is needed to determine if any laws had been broken, Ferguson said.

Senate leaders, facing what they have called a watershed moment for the upper chamber, vowed Tuesday to take action, but equivocated when asked how long it would take to act on Ferguson's recommendations.

The Senate will look at all the recommendations, "and we are going to institute all of them step-by-step," said Speaker Leo Housakos.

"There needs to be change in the Senate; not just the rules and procedures, but also the culture," added government Senate leader Claude Carignan.

"We will take quick and decisive action on the auditor general's recommendations ... we accept that there is work still to be done."

Some senators charged taxpayers to fly their staff around the country when they should have paid their own way.

In one case, auditors wrote that retired senator Gerry St. Germain expensed flights for staff to attend events at the his B.C. home that included four partisan events. In another, retired senator Vivienne Poy claimed $597 for staff to travel to Toronto to attend the launch of a book she helped to edit. Senate administration rejected Poy's own claims for the same trip.

Ferguson found Liberal Sen. Nick Sibbeston's cellphone was being used by someone else in a different location, while a staffer in the same office was using a work phone to send personal text messages. Combined cost to taxpayers: $1,534.

The report also found some members ordering custom holiday greeting cards when cheaper options were available, costing an extra $30,000 over two years compared with the generic cards provided by the Senate.

Senators should not be in charge of overseeing their own spending, Ferguson said. Otherwise, they'll be seen as looking out for their own interests. The report recommends delegating spending oversight to an independent body.

Ferguson is also calling on the Senate to let his office audit expenses on a regular basis to ensure they don't snowball into problem cases, such as the Senate saw with Pamela Wallin, Brazeau, Harb and Duffy.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version said the total amount of questionable spending flagged in the audit was nearly $977,000.

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