Transparency calls mount in New Brunswick after spending controversy

Canadian Taxpayers Federation says province's expense reporting is in 'dark ages'

FREDERICTON – A controversy over a New Brunswick backbencher’s spending has laid bare how little the public knows of how that province’s politicians spend their constituency allowance funds.

In New Brunswick, only the total tally of constituency expenses claimed by each elected member is publicly reported, whereas in other provinces such as Nova Scotia and Alberta, all member expenses are posted.

There have been calls for greater transparency after the province’s Progressive Conservative party said two weeks ago it had to cover $5,125 in rent for the riding office of Greg Davis in 2011-12, even though he claimed his maximum allotment of $40,000 for constituency expenses that year.

“The MLA expenses in New Brunswick have been in the dark ages for years,” said Kevin Lacey, the Atlantic Canada director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

“As other provinces have modernized their systems, New Brunswick has failed to and has been left years behind as a result.”

More questions arose about Davis’s spending after the provincial government said he fell behind in his rent again after the Tories covered his 2011-12 arrears, despite claiming his maximum constituency allowance allotment in 2012-13.

The government has said that problem has been resolved but declined to explain how. The Tories say they have not paid his rent in this instance.

Davis, who represents the riding of Campbellton-Restigouche Centre, said in a statement earlier this month that he will not run in the September election due to unspecified health concerns. He has not returned repeated requests for comment.

New Brunswick members can use their constituency allowance accounts to pay for rent, office operations and staff, and then submit receipts to the Clerk’s Office for reimbursement.

Every member is given a handbook that outlines what expenses are allowed and how to file for reimbursement.

“The claims for reimbursement MUST include the original receipt stamped paid or the original cancelled cheques supported by invoice,” the handbook says.

Auditor general Kim MacPherson looked at constituency expenses in her 2011 report and didn’t raise any concerns with the process used by the clerk’s office to process constituency allowance claims.

“The process was working as expected and there was back-up documentation to support the reimbursements and there was a declaration that the MLA signed indicating that it was a valid expense,” MacPherson said in an interview.

But MacPherson said there were problems with the process used to report constituency expenses for cabinet ministers because only $15,000 goes through the Clerk’s Office and the remaining $25,000 comes from the minister’s department.

“Our findings showed that less than half of the departments could respond to all of our questions indicating what they had spent on the minister’s constituency office and the budget and tracking of those costs,” she said.

MacPherson recommended that all constituency expenses be processed through the Clerk’s Office but that change has not been made.

She said she has the authority to conduct her own investigation of Davis’s spending but she is awaiting the release of a review of his constituency allowance claims by the legislative administration committee before making a decision.

Lacey said the auditor general or another independent body should review Davis’s expenses.

The Opposition Liberals have introduced a bill calling on the government to post all constituency allowance expenses online.

Deputy premier Paul Robichaud has said he supports the legislation in principle, but there are problems with its wording that need to be corrected before it can be debated.

Finance Minister Blaine Higgs said Friday he expects the bill to be debated during the current legislative session.

Nova Scotia began posting all member expenses online following a constituency allowance spending scandal that resulted in four politicians convicted of fraud.