Senate spending scandals – past and present

This is a guest column; ‘Mihael Willman’ is the pseudonym for a concerned Canadian – JG.

By Mihael Willman

In recent months, every few days a new Senate-scandal has hit the news, raising the ire of Canadian taxpayers and increasing calls for either a reform of the Senate or its outright abolition. Most of the scandals have revolved around spending allowances, questions regarding permanent residence and in the case of one Senator, criminal charges.

There is a naive attitude (perpetuated by Canadian politicians and senators alike), that simply crossing the threshold into the Senate turns ordinary, flawed individuals into “people of honor.“ Thus their word is their bond, so to speak, and all statements made must be “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.“ As a result, all expenses are deemed legitimate, not requiring any documentation to support them. After all, senators are trustworthy and above reproach, at least in their own eyes if not in the eyes of Canadian taxpayers. But it has only been recently that taxpayers have been given information as to just how much senators are spending, if not the particulars on what they are spending on. Transparency is not a word the Senate and senators believe in, at least not when it concerns them.

While the travel expenses of Pamela Wallin have been much in the news, she is not the only senator whose spending habits should be placed under a microscope. In addition to a salary of $132,000 a year, senators get money to cover “hospitality“, staff and office, living expenses and travel costs. A few senators reported no spending on hospitality, or a minimal amount, but these are in the minority, less than 20 per cent of them. Others spent hundreds or one thousand or more dollars regularly, or several times during the reported two-year period, ending November 2012.

The largest expense for most of the senators happens to be travel. Despite the fact that they are eligible for free train trips, if they travel with Via Rail, they prefer to travel by the more expensive mode – by plane. While train travel is not an option for Western senators, those living in Ontario and Quebec could quite easily use this method of transportation.

Entitled to 64 round trips a year to their home province, senators can give away unused travel allowances to family members or their staff. Who decided on this generous number of trips? There are only 52 weeks in a year, and no-one in this country works that many weeks, least of all senators or politicians. Senators sit, on average, only about 69 days a year, or just under fourteen weeks. It is very unlikely that they return home each and every weekend. However, even if they did, they would only require fourteen round trips to their homes, at the very most, instead of the 64 trips they get now. On the other hand, if we do a little calculation, the average cost of 64 roundtrip plane tickets for travel to central Canada and the east or west coast would range from about $76,800 to $96,000, unless the senators consider that they can only travel “Business Class,“ which a few senators claim is the only way they can travel.

During the Pamela Wallin press offensive, when she was either interviewed by various Canadian newspapers, or wrote articles for them trying to justify her travel expenses, she claimed that she travels home to Wadena Sask., every second weekend. No mention here whether that was during the period when the Senate was in session, or during the entire year! Even if it was throughout the year, her costs could not be more than about $40,000 to $50,000 a year, at most $100,000 for the two-year period in question. That is still $250,000 less than what she has charged!

While Pamela Wallin’s travel expenses of $350,461.42 have received the most attention, she is only “Number 3“ on the list of 24 biggest travel spenders, those who spent over $200,000 in the last two years. The top two spenders are: Nick Sibbeston (Northwest Territories) $374,263.08 and Terry Mercer (Nova Scotia) $366,104.60. The remaining high-spenders, in descending order are: Gerry St. Germain (B.C.) $350,148.38; Bert Brown (Alberta) $316,017.65; James Cowan (Nova Scotia) $310,170.08; Vivienne Poy (Ontario) $305,417.29; Robert Peterson (Saskatchewan) $272,363.79; Charlie Watt (Quebec) $265,338.85; Yonah Martin (British Columbia) $264,333.54; Donald Neil Plett (Manitoba) $238,118.42; Pana Merchant (Saskatchewan) $237,725.30; George Baker (Newfoundland) $223,106.41; Colin Kenny (Ontario) $216,100.72; Sandra Lovelace Nicholas (New Brunswick) $214,618.07; Daniel Lang (Yukon) $212,585.31; Claudette Tardif (Alberta) $209,630.87; Frank Mahovlich (Ontario) $206,629.95; Dennis Glen Patterson (Nunavut) $205,369.76; Grant Mitchell (Alberta) $205,230.39; Jane Cordy (Nova Scotia) $203,713.54; Gerald Comeau (Nova Scotia) $203,468.11; David Tkachuk (Saskatchewan) $202,862.49; and Michael Duffy (P.E.I.) $200,295.01.

Very few senators are economical in their travel expenses. In addition to the above named, another nineteen senators spent between $150,000 to $200,000, while Fabian Manning (Newfoundland) charged $194,700.14 for only seven quarters, from the end of May 2011. The lowest costing senator appears to be Paul Massicotte (Quebec), whose most expensive quarter was $23,663.48, while his travel expenses total $14,020.23 for the entire two years.

When Wallin’s travel expenses first became public, Stephen Harper came to her defence. “I have looked at the numbers. Her travel costs are comparable to any parliamentarian travelling from that particular area of the country over that period of time,” Harper said. I don’t know what’s worse. Hearing that Pamela Wallin spent $350,000 on travel expenses over a two-year period, or hearing the supposedly fiscally conscious Harper defend her by saying that this is about average for parliamentarians! If these costs are comparable to MPs travelling, then maybe we should be looking at their expense accounts as well! Following public uproar, Harper distanced himself a little from his support of Wallin, about the same time it was reported that she had repaid some of the funds before an audit was launched of her travel expenses. Of course taxpayers are not being told how much she repaid and for which trips.

The senators who are the biggest spenders on travel, are also among those whose overall spending is the greatest. A total of 27 senators record expenses exceeding $500,000 for the two year period. In descending order they are: Terry Mercer $752,415.52; Nick Sibbeston $745,985.41; Gerry St. Germain $722,232.91; Pamela Wallin $719,066.18; James Cowan $703,661.60; Vivienne Poy $645,993.23 (only 17 days of last quarter); Robert Peterson $623,465.87; Charlie Watt $608,569.49; Yonah Martin $599,890.58; Mike Duffy $594,297.62; Dennis Glen Patterson $593,760.37; Pana Merchant $580,695.40; Grant Mitchell $581,824.38; Donald Neil Plett $570,605.46; Janis Johnson $568,845.28; Elaine McCoy $568,220.60;Donald Oliver $556,792.28; Colin Kenny $549,311.67; George Furey $549,261.25; Claudette Tardif $547,381.88; Sandra Lovelace Nicholas $545,505.12; David Tkachuk $544,564.77; Daniel Lang $540,179.76; Terry Stratton $536,510.64; Wilfred Moore $528,002.65; Mobina Jaffer $515,027.25; Rod Zimmer $507,399.29; while Fabian Manning spent $460,174.28, in only seven quarters.

The highest quarterly costs were claimed by the following senators: Terry Mercer spent nearly $100,000 in two separate quarter periods and $112,004.91 in a third; Vivienne Poy spent $92,747.74 in one quarter, $93,980.53 in a second and $104,263 in a third; Nick Sibbeston spent over $80,000 in three quarter periods, $98,110 in a fourth and $ 101,890.81 in a fifth; Gerry St. Germain spent $99,597.55, $93,594.03 and $106,499.31 in three quarter periods and James Cowan spent over $90,000 in three different quarter periods.

Vivienne Poy, already mentioned above as number seven of top travel spenders, retired as of September 17, 2012, yet despite this managed to rack up $25,122.44 during her final seventeen days as a senator! Gerry St. Germain, retired in November 2012 and managed to spend a total of $78,601.72 during the last quarter, of which $38,179.32 was for travel, while Robert Peterson retired on October 19, 2012, spending $31,131.74 for travel, with a total of $65,268.42 during his last six weeks as a senator.

Then there is the case of the housing allowance frauds. According to Senate rules, any senator living more than 100 kilometers from Parliament Hill is entitled to claim an allowance of $22,000 per year for “accommodation, meals and incidentals.“ Once again the question arises as to when this rule first came into effect. During the horse and buggy era, and even the early era of trains, as the primary means of travel, it was likely assumed that weekly travel home by MPs and senators was clearly out of the question. One hundred kilometers used to be quite a distance, but today it takes only about an hour by car, something most Canadians do on a daily basis. Yet a senator living, or claiming to live, just beyond this magic distance can claim the $22,000 annual allowance and quite a few appear to be taking advantage of this.

Though he has lived in Ottawa for nearly forty years, during his career as a reporter, and even bought a home in Ottawa in 2003, Mike Duffy claimed that his primary residence was his cottage in Cavendish, P.E.I., a place where neighbours said they rarely saw him. Then reporters disclosed that he still had his OHIP registration, and had requested that his application for a P.E.I. healthcare be fast-tracked, after the Senate demanded that all senators provide proof of their primary residence. When this became public, the former reporter who had relished questioning miscreant politicians, headed for the hills, refusing to answer the embarrassing questions.

When Duffy’s appointment was first announced, the immediate reaction of some people was “great“. Here was someone who had a reputation of going after politicians to get at the truth. Having been critical of political shenanigans, his integrity was above reproach. How wrong we were! No sooner did he join the Senate, than it appeared that he was co-opted and became no better than the people he had previously criticized.

After at first denying that he was doing anything wrong, at the end of February Mike Duffy announced that he “may have made a mistake“ about his primary residence and was going to repay the allowance. Apparently the form was confusing to him! “Canadians know Mike Duffy. They’ve known me for years and they know that I would never do anything that was inappropriate and I would never, ever take advantage of my position in any kind of inappropriate way,” was his comment. They did know him, as a bulldog reporter who had demanded the truth from politicians, and as a result expected better behavior from him.

During this controversy, Conservative Senator David Tkachuk announced that Duffy was within the rules regarding his housing allowance. According to the Senate, if members own a secondary residence in Ottawa they can still be reimbursed either $30 a day or $900 a month during their stay in the area! But once again, there is something wrong with the math here. Since the Senate rarely sits more than 69 days a year, the annual housing allowance should be no more than $3,000, not the $22,000 many are claiming. In addition, one would understand if they bought a residence after their appointment, for use when the Senate is in session. However, no allowance should be provided for individuals who actually owned their homes in the Ottawa area before being appointed.

At this same time Pamela Wallin was discovered to still have her OHIP card, while maintaining that her primary residence was in Wadena, Sask. So what is the truth? If Duffy and Wallin have their primary residence in P.E.I. and Saskatchewan, respectively, then their continued use of OHIP is a case of fraud. If their primary residence is still in Ontario, then they are ineligible to sit in the senate representing P.E.I. and Saskatchewan. Either way, something is not right.

Also under scrutiny regarding housing allowance was Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu, who claimed his primary residence was in Sherbrooke, Que., where his ex-wife lives, though he has lived in Gatineau since his separation in February 2012. He stated that he stayed at the Sherbrooke condo twice a month, while meeting with a divorce lawyer, which justified claiming his allowance. Weeks after the question of his primary residence became public he announced that he was repaying $907 in expenses, which he had “mistakenly claimed“. How he calculated this amount remains a mystery. Since the end of February 2012, Boisvenu has lived in Gatineau, but has claimed $16,952.09 in living expenses for his former Sherbrooke home.

Similarly, Senator Mac Harb, claims his primary residence is just outside of the 100 kilometer zone, where neighbours have rarely, or never, seen him. He also owns at least three condo apartments in Ottawa, one of which is his address for legal documents, and has also claimed a housing allowance. Patrick Brazeau, who is currently on leave with pay because of outstanding criminal charges, has also claimed his father’s home as his primary residence, though he is rarely, if ever, there. He has claimed living expenses of $36,701.08 starting from March 2011. The unusual thing is that for the last six quarters his charges are the same: $5,250.00 each time.

Excuses by senators that “they were confused“ by the forms, raises the question of just how capable they are if they can’t understand a rather simple document. In an interview, retired senator Sharon Carstairs stated that all new senators are clearly informed by the law clerk about the rules regarding ownership of a primary residence in the province they are representing, in order to be able to claim an allowance. So “being confused“ or “mistaken“ just does not cut it as an excuse.

So a few senators will pay back money “mistakenly“ obtained (actually under false pretences, or what amounts to fraud), and nothing else will be done. No criminal charges, no removal from office, nothing. If you did this, you would be fired and charged in a heart-beat. No excuses that the “form was confusing“ or that you made a “simple mistake,“ would be accepted. But then you aren’t one of those rarefied creatures called a Senator. One can only imagine what expenses senators claimed before 2010, before their spending habits were made public. We are not dealing with pocket change. The total cost of the Senate living allowance since 2010 amounts to over $2.5 million.

The Senate has experienced a series of “lows“ in its recent history. One of the most blatant was Liberal Senator Andrew Thompson, better known as the “Siesta Senator“, so called by the Reform Party, the fore-runner of the present Conservative party. A member of the Senate for thirty years, Thompson, 73-years-old at that time, had attended the Senate for only 14 days in nearly eight years, living in virtual retirement in Mexico. Still he was paid $64,400 a year. Embarrassed by his absence, the Senate gave him a deadline to appear or lose his job, by February 10, 1998. When he failed to show up, the deadline was extended for a week. Thompson finally resigned in March 1998, six weeks after he was suspended for not turning up. He claimed that his absences were due to ill-health, though photographers who tracked him down, found that he looked quite fit. By resigning, rather than being removed, he immediately became eligible for his $48,000 pension. Senators who resign are entitled to pensions, those who are kicked out are not!

Larry Smith, who was appointed in December 2010, and then reappointed in May 2011, after an unsuccessful election bid to become a Conservative MP, claimed that his appointment was a “major concession in my lifestyle…. a dramatic, catastrophic pay cut.“ So why did he accept the appointment if it means such a financial burden? No one forced him to accept, especially not a second time.

Senator Raymond Lavigne resigned in 2011 after being found guilty of breach of trust and fraud, having claimed travel expenses for trips his staff had taken and requiring they work on his farm at taxpayers’ expense. While on leave, he continued to charge $32,000 in expenses. Eric Berntson resigned after being convicted of fraud during his term as MPP for Saskatchewan.

The Senate reached its lowest moral point in 2012, after the Harper government announced a change in the amount that MPs and Senators contribute to their pensions. For years, taxpayers have provided $24 for every $1 contributed by MPs and Senators. As of late 2012, the MP and Senate contribution was to be changed from the present $9,261 to $32,298 by 2017. The reaction from Liberal Senator Grant Mitchell shows just how disconnected from reality and the Canadian public some senators have become. Telling his colleagues that this change was unfair to senators, who retire later and therefore do not receive the same benefits, Mitchell suggested that if senators were required to contribute more towards their pension plans, it could result in them being tempted to accept bribes to make ends meet. “We could talk about brown paper bags with cash in it, because there is pressure all the time. That is why pay needs to be absolutely adequate.”

“If one gets here and has that mortgage and a couple of kids in university, or one ends up getting a chance to go to Harvard that one had not anticipated, the furnace blows up, the car breaks down, a new one must be bought, one cannot opt out. One cannot stop paying that 25 per cent of one’s pay because we are locked in, period, ” Mitchell continued.

The Senate is not a full-time job, no matter what senators may want Canadians to believe. Sitting only about three months a year leaves them more than enough time to earn additional money. Some senators, like Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin, Jacques Demers and Larry Smith are listed with the speakers’ bureau. Wallin’s rates are between $10,000 and $20,000 per speech, while Duffy’s rate, for speaking in Ottawa is $8,000. However, Wallin claims that since being appointed to the Senate she has not received payment for speaking, but has donated her “token honorariums“ to various charities. She had to correct this when a Sun Media report showed that she received $10,000 for a speech given to the Association of Municipalities of Ontario. In addition, according to the Ottawa Citizen, Duffy runs public speaking and consulting firms: Mike Duffy Media Services Inc., and P.M.P. Performance Consulting Inc. As long-time journalists, both Duffy and Wallin are probably in receipt of good pensions from their former employers. This probably applies to any number of senators who had careers in various fields before their appointments.

Crying poverty will not gain them any sympathy from hard-pressed Canadian taxpayers who have to fund their spending habits and their generous pensions. Grant Mitchell’s statement that senators retire later is also a red-herring. While senators are required to retire on their 75th birthday, they can retire at any time of their choosing. This is what Vivienne Poy has done, retiring at age 71 after fourteen years in the senate. She will be enjoining her generous pension immediately.

Canadian senators are capable of an incredible hypocrisy. While Senate expenses have finally been made public from 2010, Canadian taxpayers still remain in the dark as to how the money is being spent. Yet the same people who are reluctant to provide this information, are presently demanding that Aboriginal groups in receipt of government funding provide transparency and make public all their expenditures. While one agrees that anyone in receipt of taxpayers’ or public funds should be subject to transparency, this transparency should start at the top, with the Senate and MPs. Don’t expect others to do what you are reluctant to do yourself!

(Figures on senate spending have been calculated from information provided online.)