Senator Pamela Wallin has quit the Conservative caucus to sit as an independent, making her the fourth senator to leave her party amid a growing controversy over expense claims in the Red Chamber.
In a statement issued late Friday, Ms. Wallin said she would recuse herself from caucus until an independent audit of her travel expenses is complete. Her withdrawal came one week after the Senate's internal economy committee tabled reports saying three other senators had improperly claimed tens of thousands of dollars in housing expenses.
"I have been involved in the external audit process since December 2012 and I have been co-operating fully and willingly with the auditors. I have met with the auditors, answered all the questions and provided all requested documentation," Ms. Wallin said in her statement.
"I had anticipated that the audit process would be complete by now, but given that it continues, I have decided to recuse myself from the Conservative Caucus and I will have no further comment until the audit process is complete."
Three other senators whose expense claims were in question have also left the party fold. Mike Duffy resigned from the Conservative caucus Thursday night after it was revealed that the Prime Minister's top aide had cut him a cheque worth more than $90,000 to help Mr. Duffy repay improper expense claims.
Patrick Brazeau was removed from the Conservative caucus earlier this year after he was charged in an unrelated matter, and Mac Harb quit the Liberal caucus last week when the Senate committee for internal economy ordered Mr. Harb and Mr. Brazeau to repay the housing allowances they had collected over the past two years, with interest.
Mr. Duffy, Mr. Brazeau and Mr. Harb were all audited over their housing claims. Senators whose primary residence is more than 100 kilometers away from Parliament Hill are allowed to claim up to $22,000 per year to cover their living costs. The audit found that all three spend most of their time living in Ottawa, and the Senate committee that asked for an audit into the claims ruled that all three had collected the money improperly.
Ms. Wallin's audit has not yet been released, and is believed to be more complex because of the large number of travel-related documents auditors must review. Between September, 2010, and the end of February, 2013, Ms. Wallin charged about $375,600 in travel expenses, with only a fraction of the total listed as "regular travel," the Senate's term for travel between Ottawa and a senator's primary residence.
The former broadcaster was appointed to the Senate in 2009 to represent Saskatchewan. She said earlier this year that many of her flights to her home province are not direct, and are therefore listed as "other travel" on her expense forms.
NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus said Ms. Wallin's resignation from caucus adds to the ethical concerns surrounding the Senate. "Why was she racking up these kinds of outrageous bills? I think she owes us an explanation," Mr. Angus said Friday.
Senate government leader Marjory LeBreton issued a brief statement on Friday saying only, "Senator Wallin has informed me that she has resigned from Caucus to sit as an independent."
While Mr. Duffy is said to have faced intense pressure from his colleagues to leave the Conservative caucus this week, a Conservative source said many senators are reserving judgment on Ms. Wallin, whose audit is not yet complete, and were surprised to see her step aside. The Conservative government has previously come to Ms. Wallin's defence, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper suggesting earlier this year that he had looked at her expenses and found them to be in line with those of other Saskatchewan senators.
Lowell Murray, a retired Progressive Conservative senator, said on Friday that senators should speak out about the expense claim controversy publicly. "It's weighing a bit on my mind that my former colleagues and friends are going underground on this issue when they're going to have to come out front and be seen to confront it," he said.
Senators are expected to debate the audits and reports that have been released so far in the Red Chamber next week.