Senators Brazeau and Harb get 30 days to repay disallowed living expenses

OTTAWA – Senators Patrick Brazeau and Mac Harb have been given 30 days to reimburse taxpayers for their disallowed living expenses — bills that together total more than $280,000.

Conservative Sen. David Tkachuk, chair of the Senate’s internal economy committee, confirmed Thursday that he sent a June 3 letter to Harb demanding that he repay $231,649.

Harb, a Liberal who now sits as an independent, was initially ordered to repay $51,500, covering the two-year period of the audit. But his tab increased almost five times after Senate officials were subsequently asked to review his expenses dating back eight years.

A May 28 letter was sent to Brazeau, a former Conservative who now sits as an independent, ordering repayment of $48,745.

If they don’t repay the money voluntarily, Tkachuk said there are options for forcing the issue. He wouldn’t elaborate but Marjory LeBreton, government leader in the upper house, has said their Senate salaries could be garnisheed.

“We will move forward on that; we’re not just going to leave it,” Conservative Sen. Carolyn Stewart Olsen said following a Thursday meeting of the internal economy committee.

However, both Brazeau and Harb insist they’ve done nothing wrong and have vowed to fight the matter in court. And that could suspend efforts to get the money back, Stewart Olsen acknowledged.

“We’re going to do our very best to recover taxpayers’ money … and it will be a shame if the courts hold up the recovery but, you know, it’s due process.”

It’s unclear whether Brazeau and Harb could ask the Senate to cover their legal costs.

The repayments were demanded after Deloitte audits into the living expenses claimed by three senators. The third, Mike Duffy, repaid just over $90,000 in invalid expense claims in March, without waiting for the audit results.

It has since emerged that Duffy was given a $90,000 cheque from Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s chief of staff, Nigel Wright, to enable him to reimburse the Senate. Wright resigned last month shortly after his involvement was revealed and the transaction is now being examined by ethics officers in both houses of Parliament, as well as the RCMP.

The internal economy committee was told Thursday that Duffy paid the Senate with a personal cheque drawn on a bank in Prince Edward Island, the province he was appointed to represent.

Deloitte auditors are continuing an examination of the travel expenses claimed by a fourth senator — Pamela Wallin. Three of them appeared before the internal economy committee Thursday to explain why it’s taking so long.

Deloitte had initially told the Senate’s internal economy committee that there’d be no problem completing the audit before the Senate breaks for the summer at the end of June.

But lead auditor Gary Timm said Thursday that’s no longer possible because they’ve been asked to extend their examination of Wallin’s expenses back another three months, to the date of her appointment in January 2009.

As well, Timm said auditors are awaiting information from an unidentified third party, which won’t be available until the end of this month.

Timm told the committee the audit should be complete by mid-July but translation will take another seven to 10 days.

Eyebrows were first raised after an examination of Wallin’s travel expenses from September 2010 to Nov. 30, 2012, showed she had claimed only $29,423 in what’s deemed regular travel to and from her home province of Saskatchewan, while racking up another $321,000 in other travel elsewhere in Canada and abroad.

Tkachuk said Wallin has been “totally co-operative right from the beginning to now” and has voluntarily repaid $38,000.

“She’s said, ‘You know what, I made a mistake, here’s a cheque,'” he said after the meeting with the auditors.

Stewart Olsen said committee members are “not thrilled that it’s taking so long” to complete the Wallin audit. But they’ve figured out a way to ensure they’ll be able to release it in the middle of the summer, even though the Senate will not be sitting.

Ordinarily, the committee could not release the audit before tabling it in the Senate.