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Questions about personal expenses aren't new for Doug Black – the only senator in Canada to post his expenses online is a man who has been through this before.
Since joining the Senate earlier this year, Mr. Black has been voluntarily publishing everything at a time when senators' expenses are under scrutiny amid reviews of claims made by several current and former senators, including Patrick Brazeau, Mike Duffy, Mac Harb and Pamela Wallin.
In revealing all his claims, Mr. Black hopes to clear the air of what he calls the "baloney" questions about some spending and focus on issues.
"This whole discussion we've had over the past couple of months on expenses, senators' expenses, has been a tremendous distraction. And I went to Ottawa to talk about the issues that are affecting Albertans. And I thought the best way to clean that up and to get through that was to just put it all out there for the whole world to see," said Mr. Black, who says his top issue is market access for Canada's energy sector. "...We need to get through this baloney to talk about the issues that matter."
The Calgary lawyer and long-time Tory party figure was appointed after being elected last year as a Senate nominee in Alberta. Soon after, his own expenses raised eyebrows: it was revealed last fall that he'd made $28,000 in claims to the University of Calgary, where he served as board chair.
The expenses showed Mr. Black had billed the university for executive-class flights, $1,268.19 for a two-night Four Seasons hotel stay, limo rides and a $2,200.78 board dinner. His predecessor had claimed a total of $434.01 in expenses in over three years. He repaid $5,399.86 in ineligible claims before the documents were released, and voluntarily repaid the rest of the $28,030.88 after they were made public, though maintains they were eligible expenses. He resigned a month later.
"It was a mistake, shouldn't have happened. Did it inform my point of view [on expense disclosure]? You know, at some level it would have, but not consciously. I made a commitment [while seeking a Senate nomination], and I had to honour the commitment and I wanted to honour the commitment. That's what that was about. But I would be misleading you to say that it wasn't in the back of my mind," he said.
Once appointed to the Senate, he made transparency a focus and turned to posting both his attendance record and expenses. Currently, attendance records aren't posted online, and are available only by going, in person, to an Ottawa office tower. They show he's attended 42 of 49 Senate sitting days since his appointment.
His financial disclosure hasn't come without questions, he says. They show Mr. Black and his wife fly executive-class, in keeping with Senate rules that allow him to, between Ottawa and Calgary. It means their one-way flights each cost $1,200, just over triple the cost of economy-class tickets used by his staff.
He's regularly asked about that in his home province of Alberta, he says. He buys a travel card that lowers the price of a executive-class ticket, but books them to work comfortably and privately while commuting back and forth between Calgary and Ottawa, saying many of his documents are confidential. "So I view that frankly as my office. I'm working, that's what I do. I am, however, conscious of the cost," he said.
Mr. Black's voluntary disclosure also shows he billed $89.85 per diems on January 29, February 4, March 4, March 24, April 15, April 22, April 29 and May 6, all claims that were approved by Senate administrators. All are days when the Senate attendance register shows him doing no formal Senate business. Mr. Black's office said they were all travel days. Senators are allowed to claims per diems in some such cases, such as travel days, but are not permitted to claim them on personal days. Mr. Black's office said they were all travel days. In several other cases, Mr. Black's disclosure shows he was on Senate business but didn't make a per diem claim.
Some of his other expenses include a $179.99 coffee maker, $58.90 in Globe and Mail subscriptions, a $3 bus ticket for a staffer, $938.32 in pens, mugs and other swag from the gift shop in Parliament, and $1,290.16 for an iPad and several accessories. He also spent extensively on office supplies shortly after being appointed – chairs, computers and $2,190 to rent and install art.
People ask him about the claims, he says, but others praise him for making the move.
"People are saying Senator Black, that is exactly the right thing to do, and thanks for doing it. But yeah, there are some people that will say, hmm, that's a pretty expensive coffee machine," he says.
All-told, between Jan. 25 and May. 31, Mr. Black spent $21,520.48 on office expenses, $31,095.49 on staff salaries, $29,981.88 on travel, $9,429.76 for lodging in Ottawa (hotel rooms, before he rented an apartment) and $542.53 on hospitality. The total was $92,570.14.
This week, Conservative Senator Bob Runciman announced he, too, would post his expenses, though he hasn't yet done so. All Liberal senators are expected to post some expenses beginning Sept. 18. Mr. Black declined to say whether he's urging others to follow his lead.
"I really can't comment on what will help others. I know what has helped, and will help, me. I know that. And certainly I would expect other senators are observing this," he said.
Mr. Black served as the vice-president, finance, for Alberta's governing Progressive Conservative Party, and chaired its 2008 campaign. He was elected as a nominee in last year's provincial election and was named to the Senate on Jan. 25 this year. He's eligible to serve until 2027, but has pledged to leave after 10 years. "We've got that coffee machine for less than $20 a year," he says.
Josh Wingrove is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa.