OTTAWA – An independent audit into dubious housing allowance claims by three senators did little Thursday to silence allegations of improper spending and cover-up hanging over Canada’s much-maligned upper chamber.
Liberal Senate leader James Cowan said he wanted the committee looking into the controversy to ask police to investigate the housing claims by Conservative Sen. Mike Duffy, former Conservative Sen. Patrick Brazeau and Liberal Mac Harb.
“Personally, I think that’s the appropriate thing to do,” Cowan said.
Liberals and New Democrats in the House of Commons also clamoured for a police investigation even as Prime Minister Stephen Harper effectively declared the matter closed — satisfied, evidently, with the audit’s conclusions that the rules governing housing claims should be clarified and the money repaid.
The integrity of the audit process was also called into question Thursday amid suspicions that Duffy was tipped off about irregularities in his expense claims by the chairman of the committee that was investigating them.
A letter from Duffy suggests fellow Conservative Sen. David Tkachuk, head of the Senate’s internal economy committee, told him that Deloitte auditors had found he collected more than $1,000 in a daily living allowance while on vacation for 12 days in Florida.
“Following our informal conversation, Tuesday evening, I went through my files for January 2012,” Duffy says in the April 18 letter, obtained by The Canadian Press.
“I discovered that through a clerical error, per diems were inadvertently charged for several days when I was not in the National Capital Region.”
The informal conversation referenced in the letter took place April 16 — the same day Tkachuk was briefed by the auditors on their findings.
In the letter, Duffy blames an inexperienced, temporary staffer for the mistake. “This claim was clearly not appropriate and I will reimburse the Senate without hesitation.”
Cowan called Tkachuk’s apparent heads-up to Duffy “certainly not proper.”
Government Senate leader Marjory LeBreton noted that the auditors found that the rules governing senators’ primary and secondary residences were not clear, thereby essentially clearing the trio of deliberate fraud.
It’s sufficient that the three senators will be forced to repay allowances that were improperly claimed, LeBreton said.
In March, Duffy reimbursed the Senate $90,000 for a housing allowance he said he may have mistakenly claimed due to confusing paperwork.
Harb is now being asked to repay almost $51,500 and Brazeau almost $49,000. Harb promptly vowed to fight the finding in court and stepped down from the Liberal caucus Thursday until the matter is settled.
The controversy, which erupted last fall, revolves around a housing allowance intended to compensate senators whose primary residence is more than 100 kilometres outside the national capital area. They are entitled to claim up to $22,000 a year to compensate for maintaining a secondary home in Ottawa.
Duffy, a former journalist who has lived in the capital for years, claimed his cottage in Prince Edward Island as his primary residence. The audit found he spent just 30 per cent of the 549 days reviewed by auditors at his P.E.I. home.
Harb, who represented an Ottawa riding as an MP and owns several properties in the capital, claimed a bungalow in Westmeath, near Pembroke, Ont., as his primary residence. He put the bungalow up for sale several weeks ago.
The audit found Harb spent only 21 per cent of his time at the Westmeath residence.
Brazeau, who had been living with his girlfriend just across the river from the capital in Gatineau, Que., claimed his father’s home in Maniwaki, Que., as his primary residence. The audit found he spent just 10 per cent of his time in Maniwaki.
In an unrelated matter, Brazeau was forced to take a leave of absence from the Senate after he was charged with assault and sexual assault in February.
A separate audit into Conservative Sen. Pamela Wallin’s travel expenses is continuing.
The furor over housing allowances erupted last fall and has cast a pall over the upper chamber. It has also raised questions about whether Duffy and Wallin are entitled to sit in the Senate at all.
A senator is required by the Constitution to reside in the province he or she was appointed to represent. Duffy was appointed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to represent P.E.I., Wallin to represent Saskatchewan.
Wallin’s travel expenses suggest she spends little time in her home province. But she maintains that’s because there are few direct flights to Saskatchewan and only direct flights are counted by the Senate as travel to one’s home province.