Ex-MP Dan Harris 'exonerated' in NDP satellite office controversy
Former Toronto New Democrat off the hook for $140K repayment after submitting required paperwork
Life after politics just got a little easier for a former Toronto NDP MP who learned last month he was no longer on the hook to repay over $140,000 to the House of Commons amid the NDP satellite office controversy.
Dan Harris, who was defeated by former Toronto police chief turned Liberal Bill Blair last October after serving one term as the MP for Scarborough Southwest, told CBC News Network's Power & Politics that he hoped his case would "help move the ball forward" and he'd be only the first MP to have his bill knocked down.
"It feels pretty good to be exonerated there," he told host Rosemary Barton.
A long list of 68 current and former NDP MPs were told by the Board of Internal Economy for the House of Commons they had to repay some $2.7 million spent out of their MP office budgets because the money was used to fund partisan activities, specifically helping set up satellite offices for the party outside of Ottawa.
The MPs include leader Tom Mulcair, the NDP's House leader and many who represented Quebec ridings after 2011 but who, like Harris, lost their seats.
Harris's bill was the third-biggest: $141,467. Isabelle Morin, Alexandre Boulerice and Jean Rousseau owe $169,117, $122,122 and $142,548 respectively. Only Boulerice was re-elected on Oct. 19.
Mulcair's office owes $408,573 (racked up under both current leader Tom Mulcair and former interim leader Nycole Turmel) and party House leader's office (occupied by Nathan Cullen up until the election, but now held by Peter Julian) owes $189,714.
"The numbers in this all along have been wildly out of whack," he said. "Everybody's numbers are over-inflated."
Toronto case unique?
Harris said he found out mid-December in a letter from the Commons clerk's office that there had been a change.
Chief Financial Officer Mark Watters had told him he needed to provide information proving a former staff member was doing parliamentary, not partisan, work during the time in dispute. After the election was over, Harris said he went through emails and other office records to prove what his staffer was really doing during three years of employment was legitimately serving the riding.
His employee went on to work in the satellite office the NDP set up in downtown Toronto for 13 days, Harris said, and then he "got a bill for the entire time she worked for me."
"Mine was the one case that was outside Quebec that was completely different from the others," he said. "That satellite office in Toronto had only been open for a very short period of time — it was in the Toronto Star building, media was invited to the office opening, so it's not like we were hiding anything and it conformed to the rules."
But as a result of changes the board made in 2014 to clamp down on the use of House budgets for partisan campaigning, Harris found himself part of a nasty fight between the Conservative-dominated and secretive board of internal economy and the then-Opposition and surging New Democrats, which is still before the courts.
Unable to resolve things politically or legally and with amounts overdue for repayment, the Commons began denying MPs like Harris repayment of expenses late in the summer. Other costs, like Harris' moving expenses after being defeated, were also not covered as they would normally be after his time in office.
Now that the issue's been resolved, "I should actually end up getting a cheque from them at some point," he said, likely to the tune of about $15,000.
Damage done, not expecting apology
Harris's resolution doesn't signal the end of the legal and political fight.
"Unless they can see some compromise," he said, "it's going to proceed [in court] for some time I imagine."
Harris says his ability to prove his costs were legitimate should offer some hope to other MPs, particularly those defeated last fall and now starting their post-political life with a mortgage-sized personal debt in a few cases.
"Every single one of those MPs who got a big bill should be able to have it knocked down, while still contesting the parts that remain, because what's going to remain, although it will still be a much-smaller number, is not going to be insignificant," he said.
And in some respects, the defeated MP said, the damage is already done. While good news, it's too late for his political career.
"It certainly was used by my adversaries in the election campaign," he said, noting the allegations against him were distributed in a Conservative leaflet across his riding.
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Prime Minister Stephen Harper's then-parliamentary secretary, Paul Calandra, was also relentless in the Commons "yelling and screaming that I had stolen money and that I had sent $140,000 to Montreal of money that was supposed to have been spent in my constituency office on staff and services."
"I'm not expecting an apology from Paul, but it would be nice."
With files from Rosemary Barton and The Canadian Press