A flurry of leaked confidential documents is fuelling a behind-the-scenes political battle over the NDP's use of taxpayer dollars to pay staffers in Montreal.
So far, there's no real winner, even after reporters all over Ottawa received dozens of pages of supposedly secret documents.
Some of the documents suggest the NDP hoodwinked the House of Commons administration into thinking the staffers were really working in Ottawa. Others, however, suggest the administration knew quite well that the staffers were actually in Montreal.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair has always maintained that the administration authorized the arrangement from the beginning.
"We followed the rules every step of the way," Mulcair told reporters on Tuesday outside the House of Commons.
$3M in taxpayer money
Mulcair is to make his case Thursday before the procedure and House affairs committee.
The committee that governs House expenses, the board of internal economy, ordered an end to the NDP's so-called satellite offices last month. Now, the Conservatives and Liberals want to go further by ordering the NDP to repay as much as $3 million in taxpayers' money.
The party set up the satellite offices, staffed by people on the House payroll, in Montreal and Toronto — and had been preparing to open another in Saskatchewan.
- Tom Mulcair to face MPs over use of House resources next week
- NDP, Liberals trade accusations over taxpayer-funded offices, advertising
Mulcair will face questions on whether the staffers were doing constituency work — which is funded by the House of Commons — or political outreach, which is supposed to be funded by the party.
But, at this rate, there won't be much left to reveal by the time Mulcair testifies. It'll all be leaked. And, already, there's enough to suggest that his party's claims to purity are overdone. Likewise, the House administration's claims that "we never knew!"
The shadowy background
Behind every breach of secrecy lies the secrecy itself. In this case, the tangle of rules governing MP expenses is administered behind closed doors by the board of internal economy, comprising MPs who swear not to air each other's dirty laundry in public. No sense in letting the public know what the other guys are up to, when every party is doing the exact same thing.
But the Senate scandal has drastically changed the climate. Mike Duffy's, Pamela Wallin's and Mac Harb's expenses were all perfectly fine — until they weren't. Once exposed, they didn't look as good as when they were quietly reimbursed with no one watching.
Now, this changing climate is melting the ice in the House of Commons, too — and the dirty laundry is flying out the window. That's because both the Conservatives and the Liberals say they're not doing the same thing as the NDP. And so it came to pass that the morning headlines took dead aim at the NDP.
- NDP ordered to stop using House funds for satellite party offices
- NDP barred from spending House money on regional outposts
"House of Commons says it didn't know about NDP staff working satellite offices," blared the Ottawa Citizen on its front page.
"NDP Told Commons That Montreal Satellite Office Was Really In Ottawa," announced the Huffington Post.
Let it be said that both reports were carefully written by experienced and reputable reporters. And accurate, as far as they went. But how far did they go?
Clerk says House not told
The leaked materials include a report to the procedure and House affairs committee by the well-respected clerk of the House, Audrey O'Brien. She was asked to look into the payment by the House —- that is, by taxpayers — of salaries for those NDP staffers in Montreal. They were needed, the party says, to serve the large contingent of new NDP MPs elected in 2011.
That claim was a lot harder to sustain in the case of the satellite office in Saskatchewan. Problem: there are no New Democrat MPs in Saskatchewan. Constituency work? Really? With no constituencies?
But the current spat is about Montreal. The clerk's report flatly denies that the NDP's hiring of those staffers was approved by the House administration.
“At no point," O'Brien reports, "was the House administration informed that the employees would be located in Montreal or that their work would be carried out in co-location with a political party’s offices.”
Furthermore, O'Brien says, the administration confronted the NDP, way back in the fall of 2011, about why all these allegedly Ottawa-based employees had addresses in Montreal. O'Brien quotes Mulcair's then-deputy chief of staff, Jess Turk-Browne, as confirming that "the employees would be working in Ottawa."
Supposedly, the administration bought that assurance. And kept on buying it, even as they sent the pay cheques to Montreal. Really?
Cue the counter-leaks!
That's where the counter-leaks come in. Two of them.
The first addresses the problem evident above. On the face of it, it's hard to credit that the administration was — by its own account — alive to the potential problem but was still content to assume that the staffers ... what? Commuted en masse, working in Ottawa during the week and all trekking home to Montreal to pick up their pay cheques on weekends?
Of course, it didn't take long for more secret documents to appear mysteriously, suggesting that a House administration employee in charge of pay and benefits, Christian Boileau, was indeed told the truth.
One email, dated Sept. 22, 2011, comes from an NDP staffer who tells Boileau that he will soon receive "fifty-one (51) Employment Forms from each Quebec NDP MP for staff working in Montreal."
Oh? They're all "working in Montreal?" No problem, apparently: the next day, Boileau confirms that he received "the 50 + employment forms yesterday."
"We will sort them out and proceed to pay the employees," Boileau noted.
Two months later, on Nov. 22, Boileau writes again to the NDP, confirming that pay cheques will be sent for nine Montreal staffers. The subject line says, "RE: Pay Day - Staff with addresses in Montreal/Quebec."
For all of these reasons, Mulcair insisted today, "Pay and benefits had their Montreal addresses, openly and clearly ... Everything's been clear since day one."
You didn't get this from me!
So, the clerk says the administration was never informed that these people would be working in Montreal. But the emails suggest otherwise. So the NDP's off the hook, right?
Wrong! Once the leaks start, they don't stop.
Here's the next one: copies of those House of Commons employment forms. One appears to be signed in July 2013 by the New Democrat MP for Rimouski-Neigette—Témiscouata—Les Basques, Guy Caron. It concerns an employee whose address is in Longeuil, Que. The form offers two boxes to tick: is this "appointment within" the MP's Ottawa office, or his constituency office? Caron has ticked the box for "Ottawa office." An anonymous leaker insists this is proof of a lie — but don't say where you got this!
Caron, for his part, speedily returned a call for comment and confirmed that the employee actually worked in Montreal, but was paid out of the budget of Caron's Ottawa office. Hmm.
"You'll hear more about this when our leader appears before the committee on Thursday," Caron added.
Indeed, we will. But there's still time for more leaks.
The leaks still won't stop! Now, a counter-counter-counter leak has arrived, showing that the email trail so far is incomplete.
To recap: the emails between the NDP and Christian Boileau of the House administration suggest that Boileau knew, in September 2011, that the NDP staffers were "working in Montreal."
But now, some previously missing bits suggest he wasn't so sure. The latest leak contains a message he sent on Oct. 7 2011, asking an NDP party official to clarify that very question. It refers back to the September exchange about nine employees "working in Montreal."
"It is indicated," says Boileau, "that the employees all work in Montreal. On the employment forms we received for the 9 employees, it is indicated they work in Ottawa. Can you please confirm their work location?"
Aha! The anonymous leaker says that shows there was deception going on.
But, if the administration did not know the staffers worked in Montreal, why did they keep sending the paycheques to Montreal? That's easy, says the leaker. Lots of people live in Montreal but work and have some pied-a-terre in Ottawa during the week.
OK ... but these people didn't. And, taken together, the leaks tend to suggest the pay and benefits department at least suspected that something was up, but kept right on sending those cheques to Montreal. Were they duped, or were they OK with it?
We await further leaks. If there's anything left, that is.