Senator Pamela Wallin will likely be asked to pay back more than the $121,348 already being sought by a Senate committee following a review of an extra $20,978 in expenses that auditors said were "subject to interpretation."
The Deloitte audit on travel expenses Wallin charged to the Senate since early 2009 identified dozens of occasions where she attended "networking events" and other events including speeches. The auditors said a Senate steering committee should decide whether the events qualify as Senate business and therefore that travel claims should be allowed.
The three members of the steering committee began the review Wednesday, and CBC News has learned that they have flagged some of those claims as problematic.
"Based on our review yesterday and subject to some further research from Finance, it would certainly appear so," Conservative Senator Carolyn Stewart Olsen said Thursday about whether Wallin will be repaying some of the $20,978.
Examples of the networking events include business lunches and dinners, receptions, and meetings. For example, on Sept.9, 2009, Wallin had lunch with an executive from an international mining firm and they discussed mining and foreign ownership issues and border relations between Canada and the United States, according to her office.
Another example was a dinner with a journalist who interviewed her for a feature piece on Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall.
The steering committee is a subcommitte of the Senate's internal economy and administration committee and is made up of Stewart Olsen, Conservative Senator Gerald Comeau and Liberal Senator George Furey.
Networking events questioned
The Senate's finance department is doing further research on the problematic claims flagged by the senators and it could take several weeks for that to be completed. The steering committee will then decide if the events qualify as Senate business and determine how much more they want Wallin to repay.
Wallin told the Deloitte auditors that she understood that networking with contacts was an important part of her role and necessary for her to be "an activist and effective senator."
Wallin said Monday before the audit was released publicly on Tuesday that she would repay the amount she is asked to by the Senate, with interest, but she disputed the audit process. She called it flawed and unfair.
Wallin argues that a change in the travel policy in 2012 re-categorized activities that qualify as Senate business and that the auditors inappropriately applied the new examples of what counts to claims made between 2009 and 2011.
The audit, however, says that while changes were made to various policies and guidelines the overall principles of the senators' travel rules did not.
The audit found a long list of travel expense claims where Wallin said she was on Senate business when she was not — the trips were related to personal business and should not have been funded by the Senate.
The audit also said her many overnight stopovers in Toronto on her trips between Ottawa and Saskatchewan meant added and unnecessary costs for taxpayers — $31, 025 extra.
Wallin owns a condo in Toronto and the audit found she spent a majority of her time in the city, not in Ottawa or Wadena, Sask., which she says is her primary home. Wallin said the stopovers were necessary in order to avoid arriving late at night on a flight to Saskatchewan and then driving two hours to Wadena. And on her way back east she said she stayed over in Toronto and reviewed material for committee meetings the next day in Ottawa.
The auditors allowed the claims in instances when Wallin was doing Senate business in Ottawa or Saskatchewan at times of the day when a direct or connecting flight wouldn't have worked.
The former journalist already paid back $38,369 because of "mistakes" she said she made that involved charging the Senate for personal travel. She started paying that money back in the fall when her expenses were coming under scrutiny.
With Wallin already repaying some of the $121,348 in ineligible expenses, according to the auditors, that left $82,979 to repay. Now it appears as though she could be asked to pay back some or all of the $20,978 worth of claims that auditors said are unclear.
Senators can charge travel costs to the Senate when they are carrying out "parliamentary functions." An updated travel policy in 2012 provides examples for senators of what is covered and what is not but the audit notes there are not formal definitions of what constitutes "public business," "partisan business," "private business," and "representative business."
The onus is on senators to determine that their travel claims are related to their parliamentary duties and the travel policy cautions them to exercise "sound judgment" and give due regard to public funds.