OTTAWA — Health Minister Jane Philpott is reimbursing taxpayers just over $3,700 after it was disclosed her office paid thousands to a Toronto-based limo company owned by a Liberal supporter.
Philpott apologized for the “excessive costs” related to her work travel that was billed to Executive Sedan Livery Service Inc.
“This does not live up to the standard that Canadians expect and I have taken steps to ensure this does not occur again,” Philpott said in a statement Thursday night.
“I will personally reimburse in full the expenses incurred on March 31 and July 12 ($3,703.57) for travel to meetings that took place in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area and in Niagara Falls.”
Philpott also said she has asked her department to review travel booked to and from Toronto’s Pearson airport — a bill totalling $3,815 for 20 trips — with the same company to ensure that taxpayers were charged fair-market value.
“I will reimburse any excessive expenses based on departmental advice,” she added.
Philpott’s move to repay Canadians comes after the minister faced criticism from both opposition parties and a watchdog group, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.
All raised questions about the cost of the service and the fact it was from a company run by a supporter who canvassed for the minister during the last federal election.
On Wednesday, Philpott’s office disclosed to The Canadian Press that it spent $1,994 on transportation on July 12 while the minister was speaking at the Assembly of First Nations annual meeting in Niagara Falls, Ont.
Through Access to Information, the Conservatives also revealed the minister spent $1,708 on travel for one day on March 31 to take the minister to work-related events.
Canadians would have been on the hook for thousands more if the minister had not been called out in public, Tory health critic Colin Carrie said Thursday night, adding it reflects poorly on her judgment.
“The fact is that minister Philpott was aware that this company belonged to a Liberal,” Carrie said. “She didn’t even think once of the taxpayer.”
Carrie has also written to Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson asking for a probe into the minister’s “apparent violation of the Conflict of Interest Act.”
“The decision by the minister to use the services of such a strong supporter with no apparent open process or steps taken to avoid a conflict of interest appear to be potential violations,” Carrie said in the letter.
New Democrat MP Charlie Angus said he hopes there is a take away for the new Liberal government on the importance of accountability standards for ministers.
“I am pleased that minister Philpott is taking responsibility over her failure to respect the principles of accountability and transparency,” he said.
It is important that Prime Minister Trudeau send a signal from the top about spending, said Aaron Wudrick, federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.
“We would certainly like to hear a public statement reinforcing the importance of getting value for taxpayer dollars,” Wudrick said.
The Prime Minister’s Office did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday.
Earlier in the day, Reza Shirani — the owner of the limo company — said he was willing to personally reimburse taxpayers for the cost.
He also took aim at Philpott’s political critics.
“It never occurred to me that providing a service to a minister of the Crown at my company’s normal and standard rates — rates that are competitive for the service we provide — would end up damaging the reputation of the MP I respect and the political party I love,” he said.
Shirani also said he personally drove the minister on July 12.
“While I was driving, she was able to work full-time on what I can only assume was important business for our national government,” he said.
Shirani said his only purpose in responding to criticism — which he characterized as “petty political posturing” — is to restore Philpott’s “fine reputation and relieve her of being required to answer for such patent nonsense.”
Shirani added he resents the suggestion he’s somehow playing the system or that he is an “insider” in any way.
“I know that minister Philpott and I both deserve better,” he said. “I will have no further comment.”