News / Canada

More Liberals repay expense claims, following lead of PM's aides

Liberals revealed that former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper's office paid out almost $325,000 in relocation expenses for 29 staffers — including a single move for one individual that came in at just over $93,000.

Katie Telford, second from left, chief of staff to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, takes part in a meeting in the Cabinet room on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016. Katie Telford, and principal secretary, Gerald Butts, apologized for claiming $80,382 and $126,669 respectively in expenses incurred moving to Ottawa from Toronto.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Katie Telford, second from left, chief of staff to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, takes part in a meeting in the Cabinet room on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016. Katie Telford, and principal secretary, Gerald Butts, apologized for claiming $80,382 and $126,669 respectively in expenses incurred moving to Ottawa from Toronto.

OTTAWA — Chiefs of staff for two Liberal cabinet ministers are paying back almost $55,000 of the generous expenses they claimed for relocating to Ottawa, following the lead of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's top two aides.

Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion's chief of staff, Julian Ovens, is in the process of reimbursing $32,130 of the $119,825 he claimed for moving expenses.

And Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains' chief of staff, Elder Marques, is giving back $22,467 of the $103,997 that he claimed.

The ministers' offices announced the reimbursements late Friday at the end of the opening week of the fall parliamentary sitting, which has been consumed by controversy over excessive moving expenses.

On Thursday, Trudeau's chief of staff, Katie Telford, and principal secretary Gerald Butts apologized for accepting payment for "unreasonable" expenses involved in relocating their families from Toronto — which amounted to a total of $126,669 for Butts and $80,382 for Telford. They announced that they'll reimburse a combined total of $64,000.

The move was aimed at dousing the controversy but only seemed to add fuel, with Conservatives demanding Friday that other political staffers also pay back excessive claims.

Butts' and Telford's claims were among the $1.1 million in moving expenses paid to some four dozen political staffers in various ministers' offices, according to figures the government revealed earlier in the week in response to a Conservative MP's written question.

Although Telford and Butts said they wouldn't ask any other political staffers to follow their lead, Ovens and Marques evidently felt they had little choice. Their offices both said the decision to reimburse was "in line with the lead" taken by the prime minister's top aides.

Their additional repayments followed an attempt by the Liberals to turn the tables on Conservatives who've been attacking the government all week over the moving expenses.

Liberals revealed that former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper's office paid out almost $325,000 in relocation expenses for 29 staffers — including a single move for one individual that came in at just over $93,000.

But the Tories shot back that the Harper staffers' total expense claims were run up over nine years, whereas Trudeau's PMO managed to rack up $220,564 for five staffers in just nine months.

Tory House leader Candice Bergen said the reimbursements by Telford and Butts are an admission by the Liberals "that they have been using the taxpayer as their personal ATM."  She noted the pair are close friends of the prime minister's and that he had to sign off on their expense claims, which are paid to political staff throughout government at the discretion of each minister.

"This clearly shows a lack of judgment on behalf of the prime minister," Bergen told the House of Commons.

She also demanded to know what is covered under "personalized cash payout" — an expense category she dubbed "ambiguous" — and who else benefited from it.

In a joint statement Thursday, Telford and Butts said the category covered "miscellaneous moving expenses" which resulted in payment of just over $23,000 to Telford and almost $21,000 to Butts. They conceded those payments were  "unreasonable" and would be reimbursed.

Butts also returned almost $21,000 he'd been paid for the land transfer tax associated with his new Ottawa home.

According to Dion's office, Ovens' reimbursement included payments he received for a personalized cash payout and land transfer tax.

Bains' office said Marques' reimbursement involved strictly the land transfer tax; he did not receive a personalized cash payout.

In the original documents released by the government, Marques' moving expense claims totalled just over $113,000 . But his office said Friday that number was an estimate and the actual total was $103,997.

Trudeau initially defended the payments as having followed all the rules of a decades-old relocation policy that was last updated by the Harper government in 2011. But on Thursday he instructed Treasury Board to come up with a new — and presumably less generous — policy.

"The difference between the previous government and our government is that our prime minister recognizes the need that more can be done," Government House leader Bardish Chagger said Friday. 

Chagger, who as small business minister signed off on a $69,625 relocation claim by one staffer in her office, first revealed the cost of the Harper PMO's moving expenses in the Commons. The Privy Council Office later released a detailed table showing the expenses paid each year, ranging from zero in 2007-08 to $133,054 in 2009-10.

PCO spokesman Raymond Rivet confirmed that one individual was paid just over $93,000 for a single move, although the expenses were claimed over a period of years.