Katie and Gerry want you to know that they are sorry for what they did. The two – Katie Telford, chief of staff to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and Gerald Butts, principal secretary to Mr. Trudeau – co-wrote an admirably detailed message on Facebook last week explaining why they helped themselves to more than $200,000 in paid expenses to cover the costs of moving from Toronto to Ottawa, and why they suddenly decided to return large portions of the money.
"We take full responsibility for this having happened and because of that we are sorry," they wrote. "We've learned a lot of lessons over the past few days, and we commit to continuing to improve transparency in the future."
The message was signed, "Katie and Gerry." For Liberal partisans, it was a folksy act of contrition that was all the more noble for having been unnecessary. Why shouldn't the moving expenses of two Liberal Party heroes – the man and woman perhaps most responsible for Mr. Trudeau's surprise election – be reimbursed down to the last penny, they argued. After all, the rules allow it.
That is letting the pair off too easily. As admirable as their honesty may appear at first glance, their mea culpa raises new questions about their judgment and that of the man they work for.
Mr. Butts billed taxpayers almost $127,000 to sell his home in Toronto, buy a new one in Ottawa, and move his family. Ms. Telford billed $80,000 to sell her home in Toronto and move to the capital, where she is renting.
In both cases, their reimbursements included large envelopes referred only to as "personalized cash payout and incidentals." In Mr. Butts's case, these mystery expenses came to $20,799; Ms. Telford billed for $23,374. Both have retrospectively concluded that these envelopes were "unreasonable" and were among "a bunch of costs that we don't feel comfortable about." They say they will return the amounts.
"The principle we took to these decisions is that we should only be reimbursed for the actual cost we paid third parties to make the move happen," they wrote on Facebook. That's a very good principle indeed, one we imagine most people would not have to arrive at retroactively. Why did the two of them put in for still unexplained expenses unrelated directly to their moves, and with which they are suddenly uncomfortable? What prevented them from listening to their consciences in the first place?
Mr. Butts also says he will now reimburse a portion, but only a portion, of the amount he received to cover the land transfer tax paid when he bought his Ottawa home. The amount he proposes to repay is based on a novel formula, apparently of his invention. He should pay it all back – it was his decision to buy a home in Ottawa, rather than rent. He brought the tax on himself; it was not a direct consequence of his move.
The same goes for the pair's decision to sell their Toronto homes. He and Ms. Telford should now go even further and repay their real estate and legal fees, as well.
In both cases, selling their Toronto homes unlocked hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax-free capital gains. Paying a realtor's commission is the cost of reaping that profit – at least for the average person. There is no reason why the taxpayer should have to add to Ms. Telford's and Mr. Butts's gain by picking up the tab for associated costs.
The limits of what taxpayers should have been burdened with are clearly laid out in Ms. Telford's and Mr. Butts's itemized Facebook statement, i.e., the cost of hiring movers, a few modest incidentals, travel expenses and any temporary lodging. Based on their accounting, that comes to roughly $45,000. This would have been a reasonable and politically acceptable cost to move two valued political aides from Toronto to Ottawa.
Instead, the pair submitted expenses that amounted to almost five times that much. When the amounts were discovered, the government refused to release any details but said it was all done by the book. When the details leaked out, Ms. Telford and Mr. Butts admitted it wasn't entirely kosher after all and said they would pay back some of the money, but only the bare minimum.
The optics are terrible. The two most powerful unelected people in Ottawa, when given their first opportunity to reap the benefits of their rise to power, took the taxpayer for as much as possible. And they did so with the blessing of the Prime Minister, at whose discretion the expenses were authorized.
Mr. Trudeau could have told them to keep their expenses to a reasonable minimum. They should have done so without his urging; after all, they are the brains behind "Team Trudeau," as they call themselves in their Facebook message.
Instead, they claimed the unreasonable maximum, and Mr. Trudeau let them.