99 stupid things the government spent your money on (V)

Luxury hotel stays, iPad giveaways, and gold-embossed business cards

Jason Kirby with Richard Warnica, Gustavo Vieira, Chris Sorensen, Alex Ballingall, Martin Patriquin and Ken Macqueen
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We’ve previously brought you items 1-18, on subsidies and infrastructure, 19-34, on food and job creation, followed by 35-55, the environment, animals, and money for nothing, and 56-73, culture and tourism. Here’s the wrap-up, a sample of questionable spending on employee expenses, patronage, makeovers, studies, polls and surveys as well as lawsuits and lawyers.

Canada’s finances may be the envy of the world, but the bar is awfully low these days. Whether it’s Ottawa, the provinces or municipalities, governments across the country face horrendous deficits. We must tighten our belts, say the politicians. Austerity and cutbacks are the order of the day.

Only, you wouldn’t know it looking at this list. What follows is but a slice of the silly, wasteful, craven and often outright stupid ways governments at all levels spent taxpayers’ money over the last year. To find our 99 items, Maclean’s scoured press releases and auditor generals’ reports, contacted watchdog groups like the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, and waded through news reports, looking for examples where the money was either spent or announced in 2011. We also included a handful of egregious instances of waste that only came to light in the past 12 months, even if the actual cash was doled out in previous years.

Not everyone will agree with all these items being on the list. Some will justify handouts to companies and sports teams as necessary to “promote economic activity,” or they’ll say a camping program for new immigrants was a nice thing to do. Sure, it would be great if we could afford everything, but at a time when government spending is under the knife, when services and jobs are being cut, it’s clear many of those with their hands on the public purse have yet to come to terms with Canada’s new fiscal reality.

CASHING IN — The benefits of working for the taxpayer

74 Golf gaffe: A Richmond Hill, Ont., councillor claimed $1,200 in expenses for new golf clubs, shoes and a bag. Carmine Perrelli said he gets invited to a lot of charity tournaments and that by getting taxpayers to buy him new equipment, he actually saved them money on rentals. He also said the gear remains the property of the city. Who wouldn’t want a pair of old golf shoes?

75 Ferry froth: David Hahn spent eight years at the helm of BC Ferries, a taxpayer funded corporation. During his tenure, the B.C. government doubled his annual salary from $500,000 to $1 million. In September, at 61, Hahn retired, bowing to pressure to step down before he turned 62, when his pension would have grown to a dizzying $314,000. He’ll still retire after less than a decade of work with an annual pension of $77,000.

76 Holy gravy: A Toronto city councillor charged taxpayers $300 to have his office blessed by a Baptist pastor.

77 Charged bonuses: BC Hydro hit its financial targets last year, prompting the public utility to give an eyebrow-raising 99 per cent of its employees a performance bonus. But an internal memo revealed BC Hydro hit its yearly numbers by raising electricity rates and using some nimble accounting to defer debt payments. It also raises the question: how bad did the one per cent have to be at their jobs to not qualify for a bonus?

78 Think different: Provincial governments are gaga for Apple products. In 2010, Alberta paid $276,000 to buy 1,400 iPod Touch devices to give away during the Winter Games, while B.C. taxpayers have spent roughly $250,000 to outfit senior government officials with 268 iPads.

79 Five-star minister: It emerged in December that Defence Minister Peter MacKay spent $2,904 last year for a two-night stay at Munich’s Bayerischer Hof, a lavish hotel where Bavaria’s King Ludwig I used to take royal baths. MacKay’s lowly staffers slummed it eight minutes away at the Hilton for $239 a night.

80 Speaking of MacKay, his controversial airlift from a personal fishing trip to the airport in Gander, Nfld., cost $16,000.

81 In the three months before he was found guilty of fraud and breach of trust in March, then-senator Raymond Lavigne was allowed to expense more than $32,000.

82 The feds created a job for Cecil Clarke, a Tory candidate defeated in last year’s election, and gave him a salary of $133,000.

83 13 members of former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell’s inner circle walked away with $2.4 million in severance payments.

84 Bruce Carson, the disgraced former adviser to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, claimed $28,000 in personal expenses to a federally funded think tank in Calgary in one month alone.

MAKEOVERS — What government will do to make itself look good

85 Paranoia will cost you: The City of Montreal has spent nearly $537,000 since 2008 spying on its own employees. It’s not clear which employees were being watched, but early last year Montreal auditor general Jacques Bergeron, who has regularly criticized city officials, filed a lawsuit against municipal employees who hacked into his email.

86 Banner event: Following the earthquake in Haiti in January 2010, the Department of Foreign Affairs spent $26,500 on banners using Conservative party colours for a ministerial conference on the crisis. As reports noted, that sum is roughly 39 times Haiti’s per capita gross national product.

87 Brand bust: Two years ago, the government of Alberta spent close to $4 million to come up with a new slogan: “Alberta. Freedom to Create. Spirit to Achieve.” When Alison Redford became premier last year she scrapped the expensive, meaningless mouthful.

88 Commercial break: In the months leading up to the 2011 federal election, the Conservative government spent $26 million of public money advertising the Economic Action Plan stimulus program.

89 Golden Baird: Ottawa spent $424 for special gold-embossed business cards for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird last year.

90 It was revealed the Harper government paid $2 million to spruce up Deerhurst Resort for the G8 meeting in June 2010, including $1,600 to move a bed and $3,500 to adjust light fixtures.

91 Ottawa also spent $1.9 million to monitor what media said about it in 2010.

SURVEY SAYS — Studies, polls and research on the public dime

92 Double trouble: The federal Finance Department and Privy Council Office separately paid Ipsos Reid a total of $200,000 for two focus-group surveys that both concluded: “Generally speaking, participants were not looking for a quick fix to Canada’s budgetary deficit.”

93 Gotta run: The Public Health Agency of Canada plans to spend $55,000 to study how to combat Montezuma’s revenge—otherwise known as traveller’s diarrhea—in the Caribbean.

94 Pipe down: Barrie, Ont., spent $118,000 in preparation for a ban on commuter train whistles at railway crossings after 500 residents complained of the noise. Among the steps taken: $10,000 for a “whistle cessation study.” The city also assumed full liability for any future crossing accidents involving the silent trains.

95 A little advice: The federal government paid consultants $19.8 million, or $90,000 a day, to suggest ways to trim budgets. Here’s betting “overpriced outside advice” doesn’t end up on their list of recommended cuts.

THE PAY SCALES OF JUSTICE — Spending on lawyers and judges

96 A real Thriller: Last January, the City of Summerside, P.E.I., filed a lawsuit against an American concert promoter over a worldwide Michael Jackson tribute concert that officials thought was going to kick off in their little town. The city wired $1.3 million in two separate payments to the promoter between 2009 and 2010 after they were allegedly promised that Beyoncé, Justin Timberlake and Usher were lined up to perform in Summerside.

97 Holy unreasonable: The City of Calgary spent more than $65,000 fighting a controversial street preacher in court over a $100 bylaw fine.

98 Guilty fees: A November report called the B.C. government’s decision in late 2010 to cover $6 million in legal fees for Dave Basi and Bob Virk—two former political aides who pleaded guilty to charges of corruption—“highly unusual.”

99 Retreating judges: Ontario judges and justices of the peace spent close to $600,000 for three conferences at the Deerhurst Resort in Muskoka.