Senator Patrick Brazeau says he will fight a committee order that he pay back tens of thousands of dollars in living and travel expenses, as the Red Chamber faces growing calls to release legal opinions on the residency requirements for its members.
Mr. Brazeau, a former Conservative who is now an Independent, is the second member to challenge an order by the Senate's internal economy committee to return expense money. Liberal Senator Mac Harb, who was ordered to repay $51,482 and possibly much more, has hired a lawyer and is vowing a legal challenge. Conservative Senator Mike Duffy had previously repaid close to $90,000 in living expenses for which he will not be reimbursed.
In a statement to the media on Tuesday, Mr. Brazeau said he co-operated fully with Deloitte auditors, who were studying the three senators' expense claims at the request of the committee. After examining the audits, the committee ordered Mr. Brazeau to repay $48,744.
Mr. Brazeau points out that Deloitte auditors reported no false claims were made by him and auditors reached no conclusions as to whether he met the Senate's definition of primary residence. Further, he notes auditors found he met all four "indicators" of residence – including a provincial health card, driver's licence, income-tax returns and voting information – used by the Senate to determine a primary residence.
Marjory LeBreton, the Leader of the Government in the Senate, issued a statement on Tuesday saying the government had committed to ensuring inappropriate expenses are repaid.
"Liberal Senator Mac Harb and Independent Senator Patrick Brazeau must immediately repay inappropriately claimed expenses or the Senate will seize the funds," she said. A spokeswoman from her office said one possibility for recovering the funds could be through withholding pay.
All three senators had made use of a benefit that allows members to collect as much as $22,000 a year to cover the cost of living in the National Capital Region if their primary residence is more than 100 kilometres away. Deloitte auditors determined that none of the three spent most of their time at their declared primary residence. However, the auditors also said the Senate's definition of primary residence was not clear enough to conclude whether rules were broken.
But the issue of where senators live goes beyond expense claims for housing and points to broader questions about the qualifications members must meet to sit in the Red Chamber in the first place. The Senate's leadership has so far shown little appetite for engaging with those questions, and Ms. LeBreton has said that senators need only sign a declaration of qualification.
The Constitution states that a senator must be resident in the province he or she was appointed to represent, but does not offer a further definition of what that means. Mr. Duffy, a long-time resident of Ottawa, owns a cottage in Cavendish, PEI., but only spends about 30 per cent of his time in the province, according to the auditors.
Ms. LeBreton has said that she is satisfied that Mr. Duffy is eligible to represent PEI, but has so far declined to provide a copy of the legal opinion she said she obtained on the matter. On Tuesday, NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus sent her a letter asking for the information to be released. "I am sure that you will agree that the Senate is facing an unprecedented legitimation crisis," Mr. Angus wrote. "It is incumbent upon the Conservative-dominated Senate to show accountability to the Canadian people."
Questions to Ms. LeBreton's office about the legal opinion were not answered directly on Tuesday. Instead, her office issued a statement from her repeating the assertion that Mr. Duffy is qualified to keep his seat. "If a senator holds property and maintains a residence in the province from which they are appointed they are qualified to sit in the Senate," the statement read.
A separate legal opinion on senators' residency, requested in February by the chair and vice-chair of the Senate committee on internal economy, has not yet been provided to the committee. However, it's not clear that the committee will do anything with the opinion when it is received.
Conservative Senator David Tkachuk, the committee's chair, said his understanding is that a senator would have to stand in the chamber and question another senator's residency qualifications for the issue to be addressed by the Senate.