The release of a detailed audit of Pamela Wallin’s expense claims is deepening political problems for the Harper government, with the Saskatchewan senator accused of billing more than $121,000 in questionable expenses since taking office.
The Senate committee that ordered the independent audit confirmed Tuesday that it would refer the matter to the RCMP as it unveiled a report that listed dozens of travel claims Ms. Wallin made to the Senate for trips auditors said were related to personal and partisan events.
Ms. Wallin’s Conservative Party-related events, in particular, add to the government’s difficulties as it tries to gain control of a growing sense of public mistrust with the way the Red Chamber works. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is expected to address the Senate spending issue in a Speech from the Throne when Parliament returns, a sign that he hopes to calm the nerves of aggrieved party supporters frustrated by the recent spending revelations.
At the same time, some senators are raising questions about how much weight should be placed on an individual’s qualifications and ability to contribute to public policy when they are appointed, according to a Conservative senator who asked not to be named.
Both Liberal and Conservative governments have used Senate appointments to reward party supporters, a strategy the senator acknowledged may not always produce the best policy makers.
Ms. Wallin and embattled Senator Mike Duffy – who was given $90,000 by Mr. Harper’s then-chief of staff to repay improper expenses this year – are not long-time members of the Conservative Party. But the two former TV journalists brought an element of star power that they leveraged to become key party fundraisers and spokespeople once they entered the Senate.
The audit released Tuesday indicates that Ms. Wallin told auditors she was asked to be a “different kind of Senator,” who was more active in the community and in representing the Red Chamber. She said she spoke with another Conservative senator about some of her roles outside the Senate, such as her earlier position as chancellor at the University of Guelph, and confirmed that related travel expenses could be reimbursed.
Ms. Wallin was ordered Tuesday to return $82,979 in improper claims, in addition to the $38,369 she has already repaid. Several of the claims identified by auditors are for travel to party-related speaking engagements, while others involve trips Ms. Wallin made to Toronto or stops in that city while she was en route to Saskatchewan.
Despite a reminder that was issued to all senators shortly before the 2011 federal election period, Ms. Wallin billed the Senate for three events related to partisan election activities in April of that year, including a rally in support of the Conservative Party in Saskatoon two weeks before the election.
An internal document distributed to senators shortly before that election notes that their campaign expenses must be authorized in advance by the candidate’s official agent and paid for by that campaign.
Officials in the Prime Minister’s Office and at Conservative Party headquarters did not respond to requests for information about who authorized Ms. Wallin to travel for partisan events, and about when the government and the party became aware that the senator had billed the Red Chamber for related expenses.
“No,” Andrew MacDougall, Mr. Harper’s director of communications, replied by e-mail, when asked whether the government knew of or approved charging expenses for party-related events to the Senate.
“Our Government will not tolerate the waste or abuse of taxpayer money,” he wrote. “We expect that any inappropriate expenses will be repaid.”
Fred DeLorey, spokesman for the Conservative Party, responded to a similar question and a request for an interview with this statement by e-mail: “These expenses were submitted by Senator Wallin. Questions about them should be addressed to her.”
Ms. Wallin has called the audit “flawed and fundamentally unfair,” but promised Monday to repay whatever money the Senate says she owes with interest. She could not be reached for comment after the audit was made public Tuesday.
NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus, whose party wants to abolish the Senate, said the audit raises new questions about whether other members of the Red Chamber have used Senate resources to pay for political campaign work. “It really raises the question, is it believable that she was the only one misusing the system in this way,” he said.