Auditor general returns to Senate amid scandal over expenses flagged last year

OTTAWA – One year and several scandals later, auditor general Michael Ferguson is returning to the Senate.

Ferguson is scheduled to meet Tuesday with the internal economy committee, which oversees the financial administration of the Senate.

The meeting comes a week after the upper house voted to call in the auditor general to conduct a comprehensive audit of Senate expenses.

The chamber has been awash in scandal for months over improperly claimed housing, living and travel expenses involving former Conservative senators Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau and former Liberal Mac Harb.

Many of the troubles were foreshadowed in a report by Ferguson just a year ago.

In that report, the auditor general found insufficient documentation to determine whether senators had properly claimed a housing allowance or to verify the propriety of some hospitality, travel and living-expense claims.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau also wants to involve Ferguson in scrutinizing the other parliamentary chamber.

He will try Tuesday to gain unanimous consent in the House of Commons for a series of motions designed to shine a light on how MPs spend taxpayers’ money. Among other things, he wants the auditor general to conduct regular performance audits of the Commons administration.

As well, his motions would require MPs to post online their travel and hospitality expenses, as well as reports on how they spend their office budgets.

However, Trudeau was under fire himself Monday over a weekend television interview, in which he said he’d welcome Harb back into the Liberal caucus when and if he settles the matter of his housing allowance claims.

Harb has been ordered to reimburse the Senate for $51,500 for wrongly claiming a housing allowance for a supposedly secondary residence in Ottawa, where he has lived for decades and previously served as an MP. Harb has resigned from the Liberal caucus while he prepares to fight the order in court.

Trudeau told Global’s “The West Block with Tom Clark” on Sunday that the Brazeau and Harb cases involved an honest mistake or misunderstanding about the rules and is different from that of Duffy and Wallin.

Heritage Minister James Moore pounced Monday on Trudeau’s remarks to deflect all Liberal questions about the fact that the prime minister’s former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, personally paid Duffy $90,000 to enable him to pay back his invalid expense claims.

“I think to the taxpayers, it is a pretty dirty deal,” Moore told the Commons, where he was standing in for an absent Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

“(Harb), the Liberal member of Parliament for Ottawa Centre, now a Liberal senator for Ottawa Centre, bills taxpayers for the cost of living in Ottawa Centre. He lives here. The actual institution of the Senate is physically in his district, yet he claims $50,000 in living allowances for coming to work in the Senate.

“How can the Liberals actually, with a straight face, pretend to stand up for the middle class, when Liberal senators are stealing money from taxpayers?”

Harb may yet be ordered to return significantly more than $51,500, which covered only a two-year period. The Senate’s internal economy committee has asked for a review of his expenses dating back seven years and, consequently, he could reportedly wind up being asked to repay close to $200,000.