An independent accounting firm has been hired to audit the constituency-office spending of three B.C. MLAs – a pilot project aimed at building greater accountability for the public dollars spent by elected officials.
Each of the province’s 85 MLAs is handed $119,000 per year to maintain an office for constituency work. That does not include the cost of the office leases, which are paid directly by the legislature. The three MLAs for the pilot project will be chosen from within the boundaries of Metro Vancouver.
The review, to be conducted by Deloitte Canada and commissioned by the clerk of the legislature, is starting just as B.C. Liberal MLA Eric Foster is embroiled in a controversy over $78,000 in renovations to his community office – one that raised a red flag with Auditor-General John Doyle.
The Vernon-Monashee MLA’s spending was only reviewed by Mr. Doyle by chance – a single sample conducted in the auditor’s larger probe into the legislature’s spending patterns. It highlights, however, a larger issue: The overall lack of accounting or guidelines for the way MLAs spend public money on their community operations.
“This drives us crazy,” said Jordan Bateman, the B.C. director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. “These guys won’t even agree the sky is blue, but when it comes to the way they spend money, the MLAs on both sides will take a blank cheque and there is no accountability to the public.”
Mr. Foster is upset that details of an audit were leaked to the press showing he leased an office from an in-law of his constituency assistant, and then spent public money on renovations.
The auditor-general sent concerns arising from his audit to the secretive Legislative Assembly Management Committee on a confidential basis. Mr. Foster said he was unaware of the matter until this week, when he was in the spotlight as the head of another legislature committee that has refused to re-appoint Mr. Doyle to a second term.
The MLA did seek an opinion from Conflict of Interest Commissioner Paul Fraser, however, over the propriety of leasing an office from his aide’s in-laws. In a letter last summer, Mr. Fraser cleared him of wrongdoing.
In his account, Mr. Fraser said it was clear the office space “required interior improvement,” which the owner was going to do with the costs amortized as part of the rent over the space of the 4-year lease. “The entire process resulted in what appears to have been a full and fair negotiation that was conducted at arm’s length without any special benefit of advantage given or promised,” Mr. Fraser concluded.
But months after he signed the lease, Mr. Foster’s office forwarded a $78,000 invoice for renovations with no detailed receipts. The auditor found those expenses were outside of the existing guidelines. The Speaker of the House approved the payment of $67,000 anyway, which is now being repaid out of Mr. Foster’s constituency allowance.
But the secrecy around how constituency funds are spent remains. Last fall, the legislature began to provide summaries of each MLA’s travel costs, but no detailed receipts are offered.
Even before that, some MLAs began to voluntarily post details of their expenses, including Mr. Foster’s colleague, B.C. Liberal MLA John Rustad.
“There is, earned or not, a certain amount of distrust around politicians and the way they spend public money,” Mr. Rustad said in an interview Thursday. He doesn’t offer a breakdown of what he pays his constituency assistants, but he does post details of his travel, meals and accommodation. “I try to be as open as possible – I want my constituents to know what I’m doing.”