The auditor general’s office is drilling down on travel and office expenses claimed by senators as part of the detailed accounting of how members of the Senate spend taxpayers’ money, CBC News has learned.

The RCMP have zeroed in on travel and office expenses filed by senators Pamela Wallin and Mike Duffy during their investigations into the spending of the suspended Conservative senators.

CBC News spoke with a dozen senators, both Liberal and Conservative, to determine the scope of the review by Auditor General Michael Ferguson.

All spoke on condition of anonymity because auditors have demanded secrecy about the nature of the audits.

The senators say teams of up to four auditors have done at least one interview, and in many cases multiple interviews, with nearly half of the 96 sitting senators (there are nine vacancies in the 105-seat Senate).

Retired members of the Upper Chamber are not exempt from this exhaustive audit. CBC News has learned that forensic accountants are reaching back to interview senators who left the Senate in the past several years. 

A number of common threads emerge from interviews conducted so far. They include:

  • Pointed questions are being asked about the reasons for travel, which suggests auditors are looking for senators who did partisan political work or other non-Senate work while they charged taxpayers for Senate business.
  • Detailed queries about billing taxpayers for meals on days when they were fed on airplanes. Auditors have sought records from Air Canada, Porter and WestJet about specific flights senators took.
  • Requests for copies of contracts awarded to outside suppliers.
  • Lengthy inquiries about the nature of the work done by office staff. Those inquiries are followed by employee interviews to verify senators’ responses. 

But the interviews aren’t solely concerned with travel and office expenses. Some senators have also been asked about their housing claims. Auditors are looking to confirm claims of primary residence by visiting those senators’ homes.

The auditors are also combing through lists of gifts senators have given to visitors.

Interesting timing

One senator described the reviews as “all over the map’’ and geared to the spending habits of individual senators.

The audit was ordered by the Senate in response to the expenses scandal that dominated much of parliamentary business last year.

That scandal led to the suspension of Conservative-appointed senators Duffy, Wallin and Patrick Brazeau (a Liberal-appointed senator, Mac Harb, who also fell under public scrutiny, retired before the others were suspended).

The RCMP have already charged Brazeau and Harb with fraud and breach of trust.

All are accused of pocketing housing and travel allowances they weren’t entitled to receive. All insist they followed the rules established by the Senate.

Mac Harb Patrick Brazeau

Suspended Senator Patrick Brazeau and retired senator Mac Harb have been charged with fraud and breach of trust. (Adrian Wyld/Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Those rules have been derided as a vague set of guidelines based on an honour system under which expenses were entered merely as “Senate business” to be approved. That system has now been eliminated. 

Ferguson has said he hopes to have the reviews done by the end of this year.

But the senators contacted by CBC News said that timetable appears out of reach. They describe the interviews as detailed and time-consuming. Most have been asked to produce additional documentation. Several predict the process will cost millions of dollars. None of them expect the audits to be done until December at the earliest and more likely sometime in the spring.

The timing will be interesting, and potentially significant. The later Ferguson’s final report is released, the closer it gets to a federal election scheduled for the fall of 2015.

With the Supreme Court of Canada having dealt a mortal blow to Harper’s plans for Senate reform, the audit findings would be potential fodder for the campaign trail.

With files from Rosemary Barton, Leslie MacKinnon and James Cudmore