06/25/2015 11:35 EDT | Updated 06/25/2016 05:59 EDT

PM's office won't say if it knew of bridge corporation appointee's expenses

The Prime Minister's Office won't say whether it knew about the travel and hospitality expenses of a Conservative government appointee at a small Crown corporation, whose spending on everything from bottles of wine to zoo trips was revealed this week in an investigation by CBC's the fifth estate.

Stephen Harper's communications director, Rob Nicol, called the expenses "completely unacceptable" on Tuesday, but did not reply to queries about whether anyone on the prime minister's staff knew of them previously.

The CBC investigation looked into Tory appointee Ann Gray, who from 2007 to 2012 sat on the board of directors of the former Blue Water Bridge Canada, which ran the Canadian half of the twin bridges between Sarnia, in southwestern Ontario, and Michigan. 

It found that on three trips she took abroad to attend transportation conferences, she racked up expenses — all authorized — on things like sightseeing tours, filet mignon, liquor, visits to a trio of zoos and business-class flights with her husband.

One of her supervisors, who reluctantly approved her expenses from a $21,177 business trip to Vienna, and who was himself a Conservative government patronage appointee, called much of it "probably a holiday."

In the years that Gray was claiming these travel costs, a succession of Conservative cabinet ministers and the local MP wrote numerous letters to the Crown corporation telling it to rein in expenses and benefits for all members of its board of directors. 

The letters didn't refer specifically to Gray's spending, and the government extended her term for a year in September 2011.

In interviews, Gray said her travel expense claims always adhered to Blue Water Bridge Canada's policies and were all approved by the corporation's chairman.

She said she was not aware issues around her expenses might have been behind the government's decision in 2012 not to re-appoint her to the Crown corporation's board.

"That was never brought to my attention if there was," she said. 

PMO copied on memo

That decision was communicated to Gray in an Oct. 25, 2012, letter from Steven Fletcher, who was then minister of state for transport.

"As your current appointment will not be extended for a further term of office, I would like to take this opportunity to extend my personal gratitude for the significant time, talent and effort you have dedicated to the service of your fellow Canadians," Fletcher wrote.

The letter was copied to an official in the Prime Minister's Office, Joanne McNamara, who was director of appointments at the time.   

Fletcher wouldn't comment on matters related to board of directors' expenses at Blue Water Bridge Canada. McNamara, who now works at the University of Western Ontario in London, referred questions about whether Gray's expense claims weighed on the decision to replace her to the PMO.

Nicol, the PMO communications director, was also silent on that point. The fifth estate asked him what he or his colleagues knew about issues surrounding Gray's travel expenses and why she was not re-appointed to the Blue Water Bridge Canada board.

He responded Tuesday with an email stating: "These expenses are completely unacceptable. In fact, multiple ministers raised these concerns directly with the board."

The email concluded by pointing out that Blue Water Bridge Canada no longer exists. On Feb. 1, it was amalgamated into another entity, the Federal Bridge Corporation Ltd., and its board of directors was dissolved.

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