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The Senate has temporarily suspended the use of a private security company as it examines a sole-source contract that quickly and quietly grew from $24,000 to $95,000.

Senate finance and security officials appeared Thursday before the Senate internal economy committee – which is responsible for overseeing spending – to explain why they approved the contract without informing the committee leadership.

The at-times heated debate over the contract exposed the fact that Senators on all sides are frustrated with the lack of clear lines of responsibility when it comes to how spending is approved.

As The Globe and Mail reported this week, the union representing the Parliamentary Protective Service in the Senate has filed a grievance over the Senate’s decision to hire a private company – Arlington Group Inc. – to work inside the Senate building.

The Senate said the security company plays no security role, a claim the union representing the Senate’s armed guards disputes. Senate officials said the security company was hired in February to provide “ushers” to help people navigate the chamber’s new temporary quarters in a heritage train station southeast of Parliament Hill.

The officials noted the building has a dozen locked interior doors that were creating problems for visitors, committee witnesses and people with disabilities, and the ushers would open the doors and give directions.

Senate contracting rules state that all services contracts above $35,000 must be open to a competitive bidding process. The rules include an exemption for urgent situations, which administration officials said applied in this case.

The rules also say sole-sourced contracts must be approved by administration executives and the Senate’s internal economy committee. Officials said they informed a sub-committee of internal economy about their plans. However, Independent Senator Sabi Marwah, the chair of the internal economy committee, said he only learned of the contract after receiving questions from The Globe last week.

“I asked one question of administration: Are the rules being followed? And I was advised, yes, the rules were being followed. I said that’s fine. I wasn’t going to second-guess management,” he told the committee in explaining his initial steps. As The Globe asked more questions, Mr. Marwah said he become aware of the section in the procurement rules that says sole-source contracts worth more than $35,000 “must” be approved by his committee.

“When I was apprised of this new section, I was no longer comfortable that we should proceed, and I told them that I was no longer onside and we should cancel the contract,” Mr. Marwah said.

Several Senators on the committee asked officials to review the wording of the rules and to recommend options for removing ambiguity.

While no formal vote was taken Thursday, Mr. Marwah said after the meeting that officials will be asked to determine whether there is still a need for ushers, and if so, the committee will make a decision on the contract next week.

Officials said an initial contract was approved in February for $24,000. It was then extended into April for an additional $11,000. A further $35,000 was later approved to extend the contract until the end of June. Officials said the final cost will likely come in around $95,000. Officials also said they have been told the Public Works Department will cover most of the cost of the contract because the department had not met promised deadlines to have automatic door-openers installed.

Conservative Senator Elizabeth Marshall, a former auditor-general of Newfoundland and Labrador, said she believes the rules are clear and the contract broke procurement rules.

“You have to be open and transparent and things have to be advertised,” she said. “There’s a system that ensures fairness, and in this case, we didn’t comply with our system.”

The incident was the second time this month the committee called for a review of spending rules after dealing with Conservative allegations that rules were broken. Earlier this month, the committee voted to review the rules for spending on public opinion polls after Independent Senator Donna Dasko commissioned a $15,000 poll on Senate reform that the Conservatives said was partisan.

Independent Senator Tony Dean said the Senate needs to reconsider the Auditor-General’s recommendation to have some form of independent oversight of Senate spending. He also praised the officials for how they handled an evolving situation and accused the Conservatives of trying to stir up controversy during an election year.

“There seems to be an interest in petty allegations,” he said. “This is part of the political theatre of this place. It’s something that we just have to deal with. I’d call it background noise as we continue to do our work in trying to build a more independent and more efficient Senate.”

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