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Senate leader takes aim at suspended members' expenses

The Government Leader in the Senate is moving to stop suspended members of the Red Chamber from claiming office and travel expenses after it was revealed that Raymond Lavigne continues to bill taxpayers thousands of dollars despite being suspended for more than three years.

Marjory LeBreton said Thursday that she and her fellow senators must take steps to ensure that expense claims such as those submitted by Mr. Lavigne are not paid in the future.

Ms. LeBreton said she plans to ask Conservative Senator David Tkachuck, the chair of the Senate committee on internal economy, and Liberal Senator David Smith, the chair of the Senate rules committee, "to bring this matter before both of their committees to seek a resolution so it does not happen again."

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The situation came to light when the office, travel, hospitality and living expenses claimed by senators were made available to the public for the first time this week.

For the three-month period of Sept. 1, 2010, to Nov. 30, 2010, Mr. Lavigne claimed $17,708.46 in office expenses, $64.43 in hospitality expenses, $4,528.60 to cover his accommodation in the Ottawa area, $5,882.92 in travel between Ottawa and his home in Quebec, and another $2,605.05 for other travel.

It is unclear what official trips he was taking, or why he would need an office and a home in Ottawa.

In order to keep his Senate seat and his annual salary of $130,000, Mr. Lavigne must appear in the Senate once each session. Under the terms of his August, 2007, suspension, that is as much time as he is permitted in the chamber.

On Friday, Mr. Lavigne will learn the date that a verdict will be delivered in his trial on charges of fraud, breach of trust and obstruction of justice that have dragged through the courts for more than three years. Although his website says that he is "always visible, accessible and available," he did not return telephone calls or e-mails on Thursday.

Mr. Lavigne was appointed as a Liberal senator in March, 2002, by then-prime-minister Jean Chrétien, whose picture is still included in a brochure on his website. Mr. Lavigne is still listed as a Liberal on the parliamentary website, but was kicked out of the Liberal caucus when the charges were laid.

Ms. LeBreton said she could not discuss the Lavigne case directly because it is before the courts. And there are legal issues involved in trying to eliminate the salary of a suspended person, she said.

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But "if you are suspended from a legislature, say the Senate, and the services that are provided to you are directly related to your position in that legislative body, wouldn't it make sense that those would be suspended as well?" she asked.

"I would hope that this will have raised the ire of a lot of senators on both sides of the chamber because it hurts the whole institution."

Liberal senators would not discuss the issue on Thursday, saying it would be up to the Senate committee on internal economy to decide what steps, if any, needed to be taken.

Mr. Lavigne's troubles began in 2005, when people who own property next to his in Wakefield, Que., just north of Ottawa, noticed a man cutting down trees on their land. That man, Daniel Côté, was clearing trees for the senator - a chore he said he did as part of his job for Mr. Lavigne, who paid him $55,000 a year from the Senate payroll.

The neighbouring couple, Carol and Neil Faulkner, launched the complaint that sparked the RCMP investigation that led to the charges. They also sued Mr. Lavigne, a case that was settled out of court last year for an undisclosed amount of money.

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