As the president of the Old Port of Montreal Corporation travelled in New Zealand, she interspersed working days touring waterfronts and museums with off days on a cruise ship.
Despite the fact taxpayers were picking up part of the tab, Old Port president Claude Benoit did not take the time to meet with the heads of the various institutions that she visited as part of her full-time federal job.
“I did not meet anyone at the sites,” Ms. Benoit told a parliamentary committee on Thursday. “I took pictures.”
Ms. Benoit vigorously defended her actions as she appeared before a panel of MPs, saying recent media coverage about her spending constituted a “campaign of smear and slander.”
Still, Conservative MP Dean Del Mastro said he would be surprised if Ms. Benoit found out anything during her trip that was not readily available on the Internet.
“I think you’re well paid,” he told Ms. Benoit. “What I’d say to you is in the future, pay for your own vacations.”
Ms. Benoit replied that the fact-finding “mission” to Australia and New Zealand, in late 2008 and early 2009, was a way to gather ideas for the Old Port of Montreal, including a visit to a Ferris wheel in Melbourne. The Crown corporation located along the St. Lawrence is one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations with its public spaces, bike paths and science museum.
Ms. Benoit said her expenses were approved by the board, adding that she filed seven reports on the various destinations that she visited. She promised to send a copy of the documents to the committee, to be made public, arguing they constituted more than summary PowerPoint presentations.
“I think it’s essential for me and my colleagues to go out and draw inspiration, to establish contacts and networks, and that is how we have succeeded in selling our exhibits to other institutions,” she said.
However, MPs of all stripes lambasted Ms. Benoit and the members of the board of the Crown corporation that approved her expenses, including a $10,000 reimbursement for 10 working days during her trip Down Under in 2008 and 2009.
“It was your vacation, but you charged the taxpayer for things that you visited,” said NDP MP Charlie Angus. “I don’t think it’s necessarily up to the taxpayer to pay [for my vacations] even if I’m finding out wonderful things.”
Liberal MP Denis Coderre said that Ms. Benoit was acting like a “Conservative minister” with her $1,000-a-month car allocation, even though she lives close by the Old Port.
Ms. Benoit responded that the amount of money is part of her undisclosed salary and is taxable, to compensate her for work-related travel expenses.
The Conservatives also raised the fact that the Crown corporation’s former vice-president of finance had to leave his position because he was no longer a member of the Quebec Order of Chartered Accountants, having failed to pay his annual dues. Ms. Benoit confirmed the matter had not been checked at the time of his hiring, a situation that angered Mr. Del Mastro.
“To most people, it would seem sloppy,” the Conservative MP said.
Ms. Benoit said her institution has trimmed its expenses to deal with government cutbacks. She said that annual executive retreats, traditionally held at a luxury resort in Mont-Tremblant, are now being organized in a less-expensive venue in Montreal.
The chairman of the board of the Old-Port since mid-2009, Gerry Weiner, said he would not approve such a costly trip in the current atmosphere of government restraint.
Still, the former Conservative minister offered a full defence of Ms. Benoit, praising her abilities as the head of the federal agency and adding that he is confident that an ongoing review by the Auditor-General’s Office will not find fault with Ms. Benoit’s management.