A controversy over an Alberta politician using his taxpayer-funded housing allowance to make money took a new turn Thursday night with Derek Fildebrandt apologizing and announcing he would take a leave of absence as finance critic for the new United Conservative Party.
Fildebrandt started out the day in a defensive posture, saying there was nothing wrong with renting out his subsidized Edmonton apartment through Airbnb when he wasn't using it.
"I confirmed that letting out my Edmonton home while it is not being used is compliant with the rules," Fildebrandt said in an email earlier in the day. "Letting out an unused residence is reasonable and a part of the modern sharing economy."
But several hours later he issued a news release saying: "I apologize."
"Since January I believed that renting out my Edmonton home while I was away was above board and never cost the taxpayer anything extra," he said. "I however recognize the perception that this is not good enough, and have spoken with my constituents, and they are never wrong.
"I have paid the amount I earned during those eight months ($2,555) to the taxpayer."
Interim UCP Leader Nathan Cooper issued a three-paragraph statement confirming those developments and adding "the UCP believes in fiscal accountability and protecting taxpayers."
Both news releases said there would be no further comment, and that Fildebrandt would be leaving on a family vacation.
Earlier in the day, Fildebrandt had noted the information was leaked to the media the day after he said he would not be voting for former Wildrose Party leader Brian Jean, who is now campaigning for the leadership of the UCP.
"I hope that my stance two days ago concerning the UCP leadership race in no way influenced the timing of this story."
Alberta Party Leader Greg Clark said he has asked the Speaker of the legislature to review Fildebrandt's sub-rental of the apartment and wants a full review of living expenses claimed by all members of the assembly.
Clark said subletting an apartment being paid for by taxpayers is not right even if the current rules allow it.
"The spirit of the law should be that no MLA benefits personally from tax dollars — it is fundamentally wrong what he has done here," Clark said in front of the legislature.
"It's deeply hypocritical for someone who's been such a fierce critic of government waste to take advantage of a loophole for personal benefit."
Alex McCuaig, spokesman for the Speakers office, said Clark's request is being reviewed. Under the current rules, McCuaig said no regulations forbid what Fildebrandt had done.
"The issue of subletting a temporary residence on Airbnb, or subletting in general, is not addressed in the orders established by the member services committee," he said.
"We are not aware of any other MLAs who are currently subletting their temporary residence."
NDP Finance Minister Joe Ceci, who has been the target of years of criticism from Fildebrandt over Alberta's budget deficits and growing accumulated debt, took to social media to chide Fildebrandt.
"Yes, Derek, it's the 21st century and reasonable people don't Airbnb their tax-funded apartment for personal profit," Ceci wrote in a post on Twitter.
A spokeswoman for the government caucus said no NDP MLAs are subletting taxpayer subsidized apartments.
Fildebrandt is the member of the legislature for Strathmore-Brooks and launched a group called United Liberty to advocate for the recent merger of the Wildrose and Progressive Conservative parties — now the United Conservative Party.
The United Liberty website says he once served as the Alberta director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and led the fight against former Alberta premier Alison Redford government's deficit budgets and abuse of taxpayers' money.
Colin Craig, interim director of the federation in Alberta, said what Fildebrandt did was wrong, even if the rules technically allowed it. Craig said the federation has been lobbying for stricter regulations regarding MLA expenses for more than five years.
Politicians should be reimbursed for legitimate expenses, but should never profit on the backs of taxpayers, he said.
"It is wrong. MLAs shouldn't be taking funds and using them to profit privately off of them," he said. "Whether it is Derek or any other MLA in the legislature, that is our position."