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Claude Benoit, president of the Old Port of Montreal Corp., appears before the Commons ethics committee in Ottawa on May 10, 2012. (Sean Kilpatrick/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
Claude Benoit, president of the Old Port of Montreal Corp., appears before the Commons ethics committee in Ottawa on May 10, 2012. (Sean Kilpatrick/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Did taxpayers get good value for $10,000 report from Down Under? Add to ...

The head of a federal agency submitted a 115-page annotated photo album as her justification for a trip to Australia and New Zealand that cost taxpayers $10,000.

The document, which is now circulating inside government and was obtained by The Globe and Mail, was put together after the Old Port of Montreal Corporation agreed to pay for a portion of president Claude Benoit’s holiday-season Oceanic getaway in 2008 and 2009.

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The report includes a map of New Zealand that is credited to Mapquest.com and page after page of pictures, with captions. The descriptive and occasionally analytical comments are designed to offer inspiration for the Montreal agency’s popular facilities along the St. Lawrence, which include a science museum, public spaces and walkways.

Ms. Benoit states in her seven-part report that she worked 10 days during her nearly month-long trip. She charged a proportional part of her total expenses to taxpayers as she visited tourist attractions in major cities and travelled on a cruise ship in New Zealand.

At her various taxpayer-funded stops, Ms. Benoit visited museums, went on heritage walks, looked at maritime terminal and cruise reception areas, and explored wharfs and harbours. In Melbourne, she went to a Ferris wheel, given Montreal was looking into the possibility of getting one at the time.

Despite the fact the public was picking up the tab, Ms. Benoit did not take the time to meet with the heads of the various institutions she visited, relying on her camera and her own observations.

“I did not meet anyone at the sites,” Ms. Benoit told the ethics committee of the House on May 10. “I took pictures.”

She has earned the scorn of MPs from all parties for mixing working days with days off.

“I think you're well paid,” Conservative MP Dean Del Mastro told Ms. Benoit. “What I'd say to you is in the future, pay for your own vacations.”

During her appearance, Ms. Benoit said her report, which was not yet public at the time, proved the $10,000 getaway was a worthy expenditure.

“Seven reports for a total of 100 pages and 275 photographs were produced, distributed to managers and shared with our networks,” Ms. Benoit said. “A number of observations have led to solutions, encouraged ideas and helped the corporation make more informed choices, including opting for blockbuster exhibits at the science centre.”

Ms. Benoit rejected accusations from MPs of all stripes that she had gone on a personal trip at taxpayer expense.

“The mission consisted of a visit to the sites and facilities of interest to the Old Port of Montréal Corporation. In terms of the planning of international ferry terminals, we have a project with the Port of Montreal. In terms of recreational boating, we were in the process of replacing our facilities,” she said.

Ms. Benoit vigorously defended her actions, saying recent media coverage about her spending constituted a “campaign of smear and slander.”

Still, the photo-heavy report risks fuelling controversy over Ms. Benoit’s trip over the holiday period in 2008 and 2009. She obtained the approval of the then-president of the board to expense the costs for 10 working days in Auckland and Wellington, in New Zealand, and in Melbourne and Sydney, in Australia.

Liberal MP Denis Coderre took exception at her expense account at the ethics committee, saying 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.

Travel schedule

Ms. Benoit spent 10 working days during her trip in Australia and New Zealand in 2008-2009, including stops in Auckland and Wellington, NZ, during a cruise.

» Dec. 18-20, 2008, in Auckland, New Zealand, visiting the Waterfront, the ferry terminal and museums

» Dec. 23 in Wellington, New Zealand, visiting Te Papa, the country’s national museum

» Jan. 1, 2009, in Melbourne, Australia, visiting the riverfront and the Southern Star ferris wheel

» Jan. 11-15 in Sydney, Australia, visiting Darling Harbour, the aquarium and the zoo, the waterfront, museums, historic walks and other sites.

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