Mulcair defends use of parliamentary funds to pay party office staff

The NDP leader says the arrangement was approved by House of Commons administration

OTTAWA – Tom Mulcair insisted Tuesday that the NDP followed all the rules when it used parliamentary resources to pay staff working in a satellite party office in Montreal.

The NDP leader stood by his claim that the arrangement was approved by House of Commons administration, despite documents that suggest administrators had no idea the staffers were working outside Ottawa.

“The NDP has respected the rules every single step of the way,” Mulcair said.

“We’ve been completely transparent with the House authorities … The NDP couldn’t have been more open about this.”

But documents provided by administrators to a Commons committee — which is scheduled to grill Mulcair on the matter on Thursday — suggest otherwise.

They show that administrators were dubious about the arrangement when the NDP set up its first satellite office in Montreal in the fall of 2011, ostensibly to help the raft of rookie New Democrat MPs elected in Quebec with their constituency work.

Since then, the NDP has set up other satellite offices in Quebec City and Toronto. It was in the process of setting up another in Saskatchewan, where it has no MPs, when the all-party board of internal economy, which oversees administration of the Commons, issued a new rule last month explicitly forbidding the use of parliamentary resources to pay staff working out of offices owned or leased by a party.

According to the documents, Commons officials met in October 2011 with Jess Turk-Browne, deputy chief of staff to then interim NDP leader Nycole Turmel.

“Two officials (from Finance Services and Human Resources Services) specifically asked where the employees were working since the Employment Forms indicated Ottawa and yet the residences of the employees were in the Montreal area,” says a summary of the matter sent to the committee by Commons clerk Audrey O’Brien.

“Ms. Turk-Browne confirmed the employees would be working in Ottawa … At no point was the House Administration informed that the employees would be located in Montreal or that their work would be carried out in co-location with a political party’s offices.”

The committee has also been provided with the minutes of the meeting with Turk-Browne.

Asked to confirm whether the employees would be working in Ottawa, although they all lived in Montreal, the minutes show Turk-Browne answered: “In Ottawa.”

Samples of the employment forms the NDP filled out for the nine employees hired for its Montreal office show the party ticked a box declaring that the appointments were “within the Ottawa area.”

The documents triggered a testy, lengthy exchange between Mulcair and reporters on Tuesday, with the leader at various points denying the contents or even the existence of the documents.

He insisted that Commons administrators were well aware the employees were working in Montreal.

“The BlackBerries (issued to the staffers) all had Montreal addresses on them. The media were invited to the opening of this office, okay, and they have Montreal phone numbers. Their addresses were all in Montreal,” he said.

Mulcair stressed that the staffers were working “under Ottawa” — as opposed to “in Ottawa.” They were helping MPs with their parliamentary duties and did not engage in partisan activity, he said.

As proof of the latter, he pointed to the fact that parliamentary employees for the NDP belong to a different union than those who work for the party.

And he pointed to a letter to O’Brien, written by then-NDP House leader Joe Comartin in December 2011, as proof that the party had been up front with administrators about the arrangement.

In the letter, Comartin says the arrangement “was reviewed, discussed extensively and approved by House of Commons Pay and Benefits and Financial Services,” in consultation with legal services. He provides more detail but at no point mentions that the staffers are working outside Ottawa.

Mulcair’s office later supplied a November 2011 email from its human resources co-ordinator to an official in the Commons pay and benefits service, asking that the paycheque for one of the employees be sent to the party’s Montreal office.

However, Mulcair said the definitive proof that the NDP acted within the rules is the fact that Conservatives and Liberals on the board of internal economy last month had to change the rules to forbid the arrangement. He accused the two rival parties of playing partisan games.