OTTAWA – The effort to hold Canada’s allegedly free-spending senators to account has a new price tag — and it’s a whopper.
The independent audit of Sen. Pamela Wallin’s expenses has cost taxpayers $390,058, nearly three times the amount of ineligible expenses she was required to pay back, Senate officials disclosed Friday.
It’s also more than twice the total cost the auditing firm in question, Deloitte, billed for its review of expense claims filed by senators Mike Duffy, Patrick Brazeau and now-retired Liberal Mac Harb.
The audit into their living allowances and expenses cost $138,784.
“We know this is a significant cost,” said a statement from Sen. Gerald Comeau, the Conservative chairman of the Senate’s board of internal economy, which oversees contracts and spending.
“However, once the audit was ordered, we had to allow it to be fully concluded in order to get a fair and consistent reading of the issues involved.”
The audit costs were released on the same day RCMP filed court documents alleging Wallin committed fraud, and asked the Senate for more details, including copies of her electronic calendar.
Wallin has paid back more than $138,000 in expenses declared ineligible. Some $90,000 involving Duffy was paid by the prime minister’s former chief of staff. Harb gave back $231,649, covering eight years, and Brazeau is having his $48,744 expenses tab taken out of his paycheque.
The audit bills represent the latest revelations in the Senate spending scandal, which has gripped Ottawa for months and comes with the upper chamber nearing a vote next week on a motion to suspend Wallin, Duffy and Brazeau without pay.
In Wallin’s case, the cost soared after the Senate asked auditors to expand their probe of her expenses — primarily travel costs — to include her entire time in the upper chamber, which was not done in the other three cases.
It is a point Wallin has made repeatedly, saying that her tab was inflated because new rules governing claims were imposed on her retroactively.
Liberal Sen. George Furey, the former deputy chair of the committee, also said it was necessary to get an independent assessment.
“The cost of conducting these audits has to be viewed in context of the larger issue of public accountability and trust,” he said in a written statement.
Neither Comeau nor Furey were immediately available for comment Friday, but the Conservative government leader in the Senate said the spending was justified to root out inappropriate claims.
“Sadly, it is the price to find the infractions that were found,” said Sen. Claude Carignan.
“A lot of work has been done, among other things, the analysis of the cell (phone) data, comparing that information, it was a lot of investigation work.
“And that is one of the reasons why I am asking for those suspension motions, which are harsh, which go until the end of the session. That is taking into account the cost the Senate had to pay for this investigation.”
But New Democrat MP Alexandre Boulerice said there were less expensive ways of getting at the truth.
“Welcome to Absurdistan,” he said in a telephone interview Friday.
An audit was necessary, but Boulerice said he wonders why it had to be done by an outside firm when the federal government already has extremely competent services in the auditor general’s office.
“Weren’t there tools in the public service that could have been used to do this audit?”
The Canadian Taxpayers Federation agreed, but pointed out the auditor general works to his own timetable and reports to Parliament as a whole — something that wouldn’t sit well with the Harper government’s damage-control effort.
“What they wanted was to control the timing, the release of the information. They wanted an advance look at it,” said Gregory Thomas, the federation’s national director.
“They wanted spin and message control, the back-roomers in the Senate and (prime minister’s office). They felt by hiring a firm that reported to them, they’d be able to control the story a bit.
“Canadians end up getting handed the bill for this political spin control.”
The auditor general is now reviewing the expense claims of everyone in the upper chamber.