The NDP may be forced to repay hundreds of thousands of dollars to the House of Commons – money that was funnelled into salary costs to staff satellite offices in Montreal, Quebec City and Toronto.
On Tuesday, the all-party Board of Internal Economy that oversees MP and caucus spending concluded that the money used to pay the employees who worked in the out-of-town outposts was "not a proper use of parliamentary resources."
Conservative whip John Duncan spoke with reporters after the closed-door session wrapped up.
"The NDP have consistently disguised [and] misled House administration as to where those employees were located," he said.
"The administration provided the board with evidence to demonstrate that several members of the NDP submitted false information on the place of work for some employees."
Although Duncan declined to provide even an approximate figure, he said it would be "significant," as it would include salaries paid to a several employees since 2011.
The board has asked House administrators to come up with a "range of options" for recouping the cash, he said — from "full personal responsibility" to garnishing money from the overall caucus budget.
"These employees were working in an office that was not authorized by the Members' bylaws."
As a result, he said, "the board has determined that tax dollars used to pay those employees were not a proper use of parliamentary resources" and has asked House administrators to prepare options for the recovery of that money.
The board has also directed Commons administration to provide "relevant information" to Elections Canada on expenses related to a hotly contested byelection in the Montreal riding of Bourassa last November.
Duncan told reporters that there was "some indication" that some of the employees paid by the House of Commons had also worked on NDP candidate Stephane Moraille's campaign.
"They were working in the Montreal office, and also referenced in the election return as working in Bourassa," he said.
"As far as we can determine, there was no leave of absence."
The matter, he said, is outside the board's mandate, which is why it asked the House to refer the matter to Elections Canada, as was done earlier this year when similar questions arose over the mass mailouts the party sent out just before the byelection.
"Whether it might be an in-kind donation, or something that should be offset, we think it may very well be inappropriate," he said.
NDP maintains House authorized payments
In a written statement, New Democrat House Leader Peter Julian accused the board of continuing its "vendetta" against party members.
"Let’s be clear: no public funds were spent inappropriately and employees at our regional offices were doing exclusively parliamentary work," he said.
"The administration has no choice but to acknowledge that, like millions of Canadians, our employees were working remotely for our Quebec MPs out of the Montreal office" — which he maintained "was authorized by House of Commons administration."
He lambasted the board for "again claiming that the NDP used parliamentary funds inappropriately, without providing any tangible proof," and predicted the "partisan attack will only further suffocate the [Office of the Leader of the Opposition's] financial capacity and prevent elected officials from carrying out their parliamentary work, including holding the Conservative government to account for its multiple scandals."
Julian also had harsh words for the Liberals, who, he said, "have joined forces with the Conservatives to attack honest employees who have done nothing wrong."
"They simply worked for NDP MPs. These two parties deliberately chose to tarnish the reputation of outstanding parliamentary staff, who now find themselves in limbo and at risk of losing their jobs," he added.
Duncan said he sympathizes with employees of a party that is "scrambling to cover up a scheme they've created in having people working in locations other than what is normally authorized."
"I can only lay that at the feet of their employer," he said.
'There was no fraud': NDP
Earlier in the day, New Democrat whip Nycole Turmel stopped to talked to reporters before heading into the meeting, and went on at length about the "stress" the situation has caused for the employees who had been working out of the offices in Montreal and Quebec City.
"They've been working very hard," she noted. "We feel sorry for them."
Those staffers are still on the payroll, she confirmed, but are now either working from home, or out of NDP Leader Tom Mulcair's Outremont constituency office.
"The point right now is that there was no fraud," she added. "It was clear."
Duncan, however, told reporters House administrators have made it clear that they haven't yet been able to determine "whether the actual activities going on were parliamentary or not."
"We're just not able to do that, given the amount of information we've been provided by the NDP," he said.
A detailed timeline prepared by the office of House of Commons Speaker and board chair Andrew Scheer appears to bolster the claim that the NDP may not have been entirely forthcoming with House administrators on where those staffers would be working.
"In August 2011, the NDP hired many employees to support its newly elected Quebec members," it notes.
"Based on the employment forms signed by several of these members and submitted by the NDP, the House administration understood that the employees would work in Ottawa for their respective members and that the salaries would be paid by up to seven members concurrently."
Later that fall, the party asked if they could lease an off-precinct office especially for these employees.
"[They] were advised that this was not allowed since according to the members by-law and the members’ allowances and services manual, work should be carried out within the parliamentary precinct or in constituency offices."
In October, during discussions with staff from the office of then-interim party leader Nycole Turmel, House administration managers "specifically asked where the employees would be working, since the employment forms indicated Ottawa and yet the employees’ residences were in the Montreal area," and were told that they would indeed be working in Ottawa by Turmel's deputy chief of staff.
"At no point was the House administration informed that the employees would be located in Montreal, that their work would be carried out in an office shared with the political party’s offices or that NDP research bureau assets (namely, laptops) would be used primarily in a remote location."
The New Democrats had already served notice that they're prepared to take the matter to court, and have started the paperwork to challenge the board's earlier ruling on mass mailouts that left 23 MPs, including Mulcair, on the hook for more than a million dollars in postage costs retroactively deemed improperly billed to the House of Commons.
In today's statement, Julian said the NDP "will take the time to analyze this decision and evaluate our options before deciding on the next step."
Full text of the statement read by Conservative John Duncan, Board of Internal Economy spokesman:
Today, the Board of Internal Economy discussed a number of matters relating to the use of satellite offices by the NDP.
The administration provided the board with evidence to demonstrate that several members of the NDP submitted false information about the place of work of some employees.
These employees are working in an office that was not authorized by the members by-law.
The board has determined that tax dollars used to pay these employees were not a proper use of parliamentary resources.
As a result of this determination, the board has directed the House administration to prepare specific options for recovery of tax dollars inappropriately spent by the NDP
The board has also directed the House administration to provide relevant information to Elections Canada. The rules are clear, and it is clear that once again, the NDP has broken the rules.
Statement from Board of Internal Economy chair, House of Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer
Statement from Board of Internal Economy chair, House of Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer (PDF 141KB)
Statement from Board of Internal Economy chair, House of Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer (Text 141KB)