Alison Redford used public money inappropriately: auditor

Audit examines Redford's travel expenses and use of government aircraft

Jason Franson for MacLean's Magazine.

Photograph by Jason Franson.

EDMONTON — Alberta’s auditor general says former premier Alison Redford and her office used public resources inappropriately.

Merwan Saher concludes that they consistently failed to demonstrate that travel expenses were necessary and a reasonable and appropriate use of taxpayer money.

He says Redford used public assets, including government aircraft, for personal and partisan purposes.

“Overall, the expense practices and use of public assets by premier Redford and her office have fallen short of publicly stated goals,” Saher wrote in a review of Redford’s travel expenses and use of government aircraft released Thursday.

“How could this happen? The answer is the aura of power around premier Redford and her office and the perception that the influence of the office should not be questioned.”

He lays the blame squarely on Redford and her staff, and says other government departments were “wary of challenging decisions” and often worked around or ignored rules so the premier wouldn’t be personally linked to arrangements.

Redford resigned as premier in March as a caucus revolt brewed over her leadership style and lavish spending.

She then resigned her seat as a Calgary backbencher Wednesday and in a letter acknowledged mistakes were made during her time in office. She said she would not be commenting further.

Saher outlined various misdeeds in his report, including a practice of “block booking” government aircraft to give the appearance planes were full “so that other passengers could not ride on the same flight” as the premier and her staff.

He says Redford and her former chief of staff have denied any knowledge of the practice, but that it’s clear the idea came from her office.

He says Redford also used government planes to attend Progressive Conservative party functions, sometimes scheduling government related activities for the same times.

Two times, she used the planes for trips that Saher found were more personal than business related — a family funeral in Vancouver and a weekend in Jasper. Her daughter travelled on both occasions, as well as on 48 other flights, a few times with friends and a couples of times without her mother.

Saher delved into the premier’s trade mission to India and Switzerland earlier this year that the government previously said cost $131,000. Adding other fees, such as advance planning, security and travel for other staff, Saher found the trip actually cost $450,000.

He further found that Redford was involved in a now-cancelled plan to add a premier’s suite to a government building being renovated near the legislature, a residence dubbed in the media as “sky palace” when it was revealed earlier this year.

Alberta’s justice minister has instructed that the auditor’s report be sent to the RCMP.

Jonathan Denis says he has arranged for prosecutors from Ontario to work with police on a review of the former premier’s expenses. He says the use of out-of-province lawyers is needed to ensure an independent investigation and remove any perception of a conflict.

Shortly after the report was released, the Opposition Wildrose called for the resignation of Finance Minister Doug Horner, whose department is responsible for the provincial planes. The NDP demanded a public inquiry.

Horner was to comment on the report later Thursday.

Saher’s six recommendations include that the Treasury Board monitor the premier’s expenses and the use of official aircraft. He also suggests the government should clarify its planes policy to ensure they are not used for partisan purposes and to make sure flights are cost effective.

Redford’s replacement, Premier Dave Hancock, says the government accepts the auditor general’s recommendations and “will take immediate action to implement them fully.”

He also says the provincial PC party will reimburse the government for the cost of Redford flights that were taken for party purposes.

After Redford resigned her seat Wednesday, Jim McCormick, president of the PC party in Alberta, said that it was her “own personal choices that led to her demise.”

“She is alleged to have broken government rules, and taxpayer dollars were not treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. She has paid a personal and political price for her mistakes and we appreciate her decision to take responsibility for her actions,” he wrote in a statement.

Redford has been under fire for her travel expenses for months.

It began with revelation earlier this year about a $45,000 trip to South Africa for Nelson Mandela’s funeral. Nova Scotia’s premier billed taxpayers less than $1,000 for the same trip by travelling on the federal government’s plane.

After weeks of criticism, Redford did pay the money back for that trip.

But complaints over her travel expenses persisted, when she admitted flying her daughter and the girl’s friends around on government planes. She admitted the trips didn’t follow the rules and repaid about $3,100.

She then put a stop to all out-of-province trips on government aircraft and asked the auditor general to conduct a review.

Redford said in her resignation letter that she doesn’t plan to stay in politics.

Trained as a lawyer, she said she plans to teach and resume work in international development and public policy.

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