Auditor General says he has freedom to operate while studying Senate

OTTAWA – Canada’s auditor general says his office will have free rein to dig where it wants to dig as it embarks on an unprecented study of Senate expenses.

Michael Ferguson appeared before the Senate internal economy committee Tuesday evening, as one of the first steps in the process. The Conservatives proposed bringing Ferguson in as a way to shine light on what senators claim for living and travel expenses.

“Our understanding is that we will set the objectives, we will set what we want to look at, and we don’t expect that there will be any restraints on the work we do,” Ferguson told reporters outside the committee.

Ferguson said his team is now in an extensive planning process to determine which parts of the Senate it will look at, and just how many senators will have their expenses reviewed with a fine tooth comb.

He said it could just be a sample of senators, or even every single one, but it’s a matter of statistics.

“If we need a 100 per cent confidence level, that would imply we need to look at every senator. Do we need 99 per cent, do we need 95 per cent?” said Ferguson.

The auditor general wouldn’t speculate on how long the audit would last, but said most other performance audits last typically 18 months. Ferguson said he might well decide to put out an interim audit partway through the process.

The timing of his reports could be politically interesting. A federal election is scheduled for October 2015.

“We understand that in this particular audit that people are interested in what we find, and therefore we need to consider whether some form of interim reporting will be necessary so that people understand how things are progressing,” said Ferguson.

The internal economy committee was shaken up Tuesday with the news that its chairman, David Tkachuk, would be stepping aside.

The Saskatchewan Conservative senator is about to undergo treatment next week for bladder cancer.

“I had no choice, really,” Tkachuk said in an interview.

“For me, I have to get every opportunity for no stress, no nothing. I just want to deal with this only.”

As internal economy chairman, Tkachuk has faced enormous stress since late last fall, when reports first surfaced that some senators had been improperly claiming housing allowances.

He has been in the spotlight ever since, as the Senate expenses scandal has mushroomed.

“This has been an unbelievable stressful time,” he said.

It was Tkachuk’s committee that ordered external audits of housing and living allowance claims by three senators — Mike Duffy, Patrick Brazeau and Mac Harb — and the travel expenses of a fourth, Pamela Wallin.

Sources told The Canadian Press that Senate finance officials raised concerns about Wallin’s travel claims roughly 18 months ago with Tkachuk and the other two members of the steering group inside the committee.

The sources said that it wasn’t until November 2012 that the steering group finally sent the issue to independent auditors with the firm Deloitte.

Tkachuk was accused last month of tipping off Duffy to audit findings that he’d claimed living expenses while on vacation in Florida.

He faced further accusations that he and other Conservatives on the committee whitewashed the final report on Duffy, going easier on him than on Brazeau and Harb.

However, the committee subsequently toughened the Duffy report and asked the RCMP to investigate after it was revealed the prime minister’s chief of staff, Nigel Wright, had personally given Duffy $90,000 so that he could reimburse his invalid expense claims.

The committee is still awaiting the results of the external audit of Wallin’s travel expenses, which is not expected to be completed until after the Senate breaks on June 28 for the summer.

“Because that treatment will take me through the summer and there is no guarantee of success, it makes it impossible for me to fulfil my duties as chair in these very demanding times,” Tkachuk told the Senate, to applause from Liberals and Conservatives alike.

“I do not like to leave jobs unfinished but, at the same time, I do not want to add to the committee’s problems.”

Tkachuk intends to preside over one final internal economy meeting on Thursday, when Deloitte auditors are to update the committee on the progress of the Wallin audit.

Tkachuk also confirmed Tuesday that he’s written Harb to inform him that he must repay four times more in housing and living allowances than initially demanded.

The committee initially pegged Harb’s invalid claims at $51,500 but that covered only a two year period. Since last month, it has gone back eight years — as far back as the Senate keeps records — and has determined that Harb should reimburse “over $200,000,” Tkachuk said.

Harb has insisted he broke no rules and is vowing to fight the matter in court.