Senator Mac Harb bought a house outside the National Capital Region less than three months after he was appointed to the Senate, enabling the former Ottawa Centre MP to collect a living allowance he would not otherwise have been entitled to.
In an affidavit filed with the Ontario Superior Court, Mr. Harb says he checked with the Clerk of the Senate before purchasing the house and was told he could designate it as his primary residence, a move that would allow him to claim living and mileage expenses for trips to Ottawa. The former Liberal Senator filed an application for judicial review on Monday, asking the court to quash a Senate decision that found he should not have claimed the money.
Under current Senate rules, a member whose primary residence is located more than 100 kilometres away from Parliament Hill can claim a stipend of up to $22,000 per year to help cover the cost of working in Ottawa.
Mr. Harb’s claims were audited by an external firm, which found that the Senator spent more time in Ottawa than at his declared primary residence, but noted that the Senate’s rules on residency were not clear. The Senate’s internal economy committee disagreed, and told Mr. Harb last month that he must repay about $51,000 in claims he made during the past two years. That time period was later extended to cover the past eight years, for an amount totalling more than $230,000.
Mr. Harb, a former Ottawa city councillor and MP for Ottawa Centre, argued in his affidavit that the committee failed to act impartially or give him a meaningful chance to respond to the case against him.
He says he bought a residence in Cobden, Ont., in late 2003, located about 120 kilometres away from Ottawa. Property records show that he bought the home in December, 2003.
Mr. Harb said in the affidavit that he consulted with then-Senate clerk Paul Belisle in November, 2003, to see if he could count the Cobden house as his primary residence, “given that it was a new home and that I had previously resided in Ottawa.”
“The Clerk of the Senate informed me that pursuant to the Senate guidelines, I could designate my new home as my primary residence, as it was more than 100 kilometres from Parliament Hill,” the affidavit states.
A declaration of primary residence, filed with the Senate in November, 2003, indicated that Mr. Harb’s primary residence would be in Cobden, Ont., as of Dec. 1, 2003. A handwritten note on the declaration form points out the distance between Ottawa and Mr. Harb’s new residence.
In 2008, Mr. Harb wrote to the Senate’s finance department to say that he had bought a condominium in Ottawa, which he considered to be his secondary residence. He later changed his primary residence from Cobden to nearby Westmeath, Ont., a move reflected in subsequent residency declarations he filed with the Senate.
In his affidavit, Mr. Harb states that he has “never been informed that any of my claims were ever questioned or rejected by the Committee, the Senate administration or the Clerk of the Senate.”
Mr. Harb adds that he was given little opportunity to participate in the committee’s work, and that on the evening before his report was tabled he was informed of an opportunity to attend a committee meeting 90 minutes before it was scheduled to begin. “I was never given the chance to read the report of the Subcommittee or to present any evidence or submissions to respond to its conclusions,” he says in the affidavit.
None of the arguments have been proven in court and the Senate and relevant committees have not filed formal responses. A spokeswoman for the Senate said she could not comment on matters before the courts.
Mr. Harb is one of three senators whose residency claims were audited earlier this year. Senator Patrick Brazeau was ordered to repay about $49,000 and Senator Mike Duffy has already repaid about $90,000.
Mr. Duffy was given the money by the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Nigel Wright, who has since resigned over the matter. The payment to Mr. Duffy is now under scrutiny by the RCMP, which has said it is investigating “to determine whether a criminal act has taken place.”
A fourth senator, Pamela Wallin, is currently having her travel and residency claims audited. Auditors have said they expect their review of her expenses to be completed in July.
Mr. Harb was appointed to the Senate in September, 2003, by former prime minister Jean Chrétien. He resigned from the Liberal caucus in May after a report on his living expenses was tabled in the Senate and continues to sit as an Independent.
With a report from Stephanie Chambers in Toronto