The wine and margaritas seemed to flow as Royal Canadian Mint staff soaked up the sun and dined at a luxury theme park during an expenses-paid trip to a five-star Mexican resort last year at the tail end of an international coinage conference.

The three-day stay at the all-inclusive beach resort was authorized by the mint to allow its team to rub elbows with dozens of colleagues from the global minting industry, while being entertained by indigenous rituals, salsa dancers and a mariachi band. 

Records obtained by CBC's the fifth estate show 11 mint personnel went on the trip, including then-CEO Ian Bennett, since-retired chief operating officer Beverley Lepine and Claude Bennett, a Conservative appointee on the board of directors. 

The group stayed at the Grand Velas hotel, a retreat calling itself the "most spectacular vacation destination" in Mexico's Mayan Riviera region and boasting "acres of white sand beach." The spacious 1,100-square-foot guest rooms are decorated in Mexican art and overlook the Caribbean Sea or the jungle.

The itinerary for the sightseeing and networking trip included a "dinner party at the beach," an evening at the Mayan-themed eco park and a tour of Mayan ruins.

Trips defended

Proponents say such trips are an important way for global coin-industry executives to meet, confront common technical problems or other concerns, forge stronger ties and drum up business.

The Royal Canadian Mint in particular earns significant revenues manufacturing other countries' currencies, bringing in $73 million last year producing coins, blanks and medallions for 15 foreign states. 

Grand Velas Riviera Maya resort

In the most recent of a series of junkets, the mint paid for staff to stay at the Grand Velas Riviera Maya resort for three days in May 2014. (Grand Velas Riviera Maya/Flickr)

But a government watchdog saw it differently.

"A lot of Canadians would be beside themselves to see Crown corporation executives spending money this casually," said Aaron Wudrick, the federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, a national lobby group for lower taxes and accountable government.

"Essentially paying for what is a glorified vacation … I think that's the part that would really stick in Canadians' craws."

The Royal Canadian Mint wouldn't disclose the total cost of the post-conference trip for its 11 personnel. But figures from the Mexican Mint, which hosted the event, put the price at $1,450 US a person for a domestic flight, the hotel stay and sightseeing. An early-bird discount might have lowered that cost.

Four Canadian mint executives' spouses were authorized to attend, too, also at public expense, but they appear to all have cancelled. When CBC asked why, the mint wouldn't say. 

Great Barrier Reef, Austrian countryside

The fifth estate obtained records documenting the May 2014 junket — including photos and video — from an access to information request to the Mexican Mint, as well as the Canadian mint's own public disclosures of travel expenses.

The trip was an optional three-day add-on, known in the industry as a "post-conference tour," following the conclusion of a major international minting convention hosted in Mexico City last year. 

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Send any tips about this story or anything related to federal expenses to investigations@cbc.ca or call Harvey Cashore at 416-526-4704. Contact the writer of this story at zach.dubinsky@cbc.ca

Previous iterations of the convention in Australia in 2010 and Vienna in 2012 have included post-conference tours to the Great Barrier Reef and the Australian rainforest, and to the Austrian countryside. Canadian mint personnel were authorized and attended those as well.  

At least two other global mints canvassed by CBC News, the U.S. and British mints, said while they may attend the international conferences, they do not pay for their staff to go on the post-conference trips. 

A U.S. Mint employee dismissed them as a "not appropriate" use of public money."We're a federal entity and we just can't spend our taxpayers' money going to another country and hanging out at the winery and nice balls with flowing fountains," said Arnetta Cain, who works in the office of the director of the U.S. Mint.

"If you want to party, I guess it's fine, but not at the federal government expense."

CEO questioned

The Canadian mint rebuffed a series of questions about why it chose to send 11 personnel and what business they might have conducted during their time at the Mexican resort. 

Finance Minister Joe Oliver, who oversees the mint, also declined an interview last month, referring all questions back to the Crown corporation. But then late Tuesday afternoon, he issued a statement saying the mint "has a responsibility to taxpayers to ensure that public funds are constantly being managed properly."

Ian Bennett, former Royal Canadian Mint CEO

Repeated attempts to contact Ian Bennett, the now-retired CEO who was in charge when the Mexico trip was booked, went unanswered. 

Finally, fifth estate reporter Mark Kelley caught up with him earlier this month outside his home in Ottawa's Glebe neighbourhood. 

"We're just curious to know why large groups of mint employees were allowed to go on these trips," Kelley said.

"The mint is a for-profit corporation," the former CEO replied, standing on his front walkway in a ballcap and sunglasses. "It doesn't take appropriations from the government. And its revenues went from $500 million to $3½ billion in seven years. 

"I mean, I think you have to judge the company's performance by those sort of metrics."

The mint indeed ran profits, ranging from $11 million to $49 million, every year Bennett was in charge. But it also receives more than $100 million annually from the federal government to pay for the production and management of Canada's circulating coins.

"You think it was money that was well spent?" Kelley asked about the Mexico trip and others.

"Yeah," Bennett said. "Was it the best? Who knows? I mean, you can always second guess things in retrospect. But I think it was there to make money, and by the evidence of the corporation's results, it did."

About-face

Bennett retired from the mint last June, and a new CEO was hired in February.

Then in recent weeks, following a series of questions from the fifth  estate, the mint publicly announced a major about-face: It will no longer pay for any personnel to partake in post-conference tours, nor for any spousal travel. 

Citing its "new leadership," the mint said in a June 1 statement it is overhauling its rules to meet "the expectations Canadians have of a Crown corporation."


Itinerary

The schedule for the three-day "post-conference tour" at the tail end of an international coinage convention last year in Mexico City: 

Day 1 Fly to Cancun and head to Grand Velas Riviera Maya resort, followed by lunch at the resort and a "dinner party at the beach." (The party had to be moved indoors due to rain, according to an attendee.)

Day 2 Optional all-day visit to the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza, then a ballroom dinner back at the resort complete with a live band and salsa dancers. The Royal Canadian Mint appears to have sponsored the evening as its logo appears on banners wrapping the ballroom stage. Ian Bennett, the mint's then-CEO, gave a speech at the dinner. 

Day 3 A "leisure morning — no activities scheduled" followed by lunch and then a closing gala dinner and show at XCaret, a luxury, Mayan-themed eco-adventure park.​​


Send any tips about this story or anything related to federal expenses to investigations@cbc.ca or call Harvey Cashore at 416-526-4704. Contact the writer of this story at zach.dubinsky@cbc.ca

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