Sightseeing tours. Bottles of wine and amaretto. Trips to the zoo. Business class flights with her husband.

One of the Conservative government's appointees to a tiny Crown corporation racked up big expenses during her term — and one of the supervisors who approved a portion of the spending now calls much of it "probably a holiday."

Ann Gray, a freelance land-records researcher from Sarnia, Ont., sat on the board of directors of Blue Water Bridge Canada from 2007 to 2012. Until it was folded into another entity in February, the corporation ran the Canadian half of the international bridge between Sarnia and Port Huron, Mich.

Ann Gray of Sarnia, Ont.

Ann Gray says she can't remember how she came to expense $172 at a California boutique that sells wind chimes, or $24.50 on duty free alcohol, among other receipts unearthed by CBC's the fifth estate. (CBC)

Directors at BWBC, as it's known, served without pay by law. But the company's policies allowed them latitude with their public spending: They could take their spouses on international trips on company business, fly business class, expense alcohol with their meals and bill for entertainment.  

A review of Gray's corporate spending — all of it authorized — by CBC's the fifth estate showed she took advantage of those perks.

Her bills included $3.19 for Pringles, $145 for her and her husband to visit a trio of zoos and $172 at a garden decor boutique in San Diego that got expensed as "food."

In an interview last week, Gray said all of her expenses were approved by the company's chairman, and all of it was according to company policy.

"Everything was authorized. The chair didn't have any problems with it," she said.

Filet mignon

The first trip reviewed by the fifth estate was in September 2010. Gray and four other senior BWBC executives headed to San Diego for a transportation conference. Their spouses were authorized to go along as well.

The convention ran from Sept. 12 to 15, but Gray and her husband, Robert, a lawyer, stuck around for three more days.

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On Sept. 16, they visited the USS Midway Museum — a showcase of American navy history on a decommissioned postwar aircraft carrier.

The next day, they spent $104 for a trolley tour of the city. That night, they dined on filet mignon, chicken piccata and a bottle of chianti at a restaurant called Lou and Mickey's. Total bill: $213.

The following morning, they headed to the San Diego Zoo.

The receipts for all of it — including the extra days' stay at the Hilton Hotel — were reimbursed by BWBC.

'A bit of a thank you'

Asked why she stayed the extra days and billed for the sightseeing excursions, Gray stressed that the expenses "were all authorized by the chair and they fell within the policy."

She also said it was useful to go early to conferences or stay a few days later, because "there's an opportunity to meet with vendors and suppliers to the industry."

Anne Gray with Steven Fletcher and Pat Davidson

Ann Gray, right, was vice-chair of the board during this 2011 ribbon-cutting attended by then minister of state Steven Fletcher, left. The next year, Fletcher wrote to tell Grey she was not going to be re-appointed. (Sun Media)

Pressed about why she would stay for three extra days after attending the conference and not just one or two, Gray replied: "I had just spent a week of my free time doing it. It was, potentially, I guess, a bit of a thank you, a recognition for the time that I had committed to the organization."

Gray said she couldn't remember a couple of peculiar purchases from the trip.

She said she had no memory of her husband picking up a $24.50 bottle of amaretto at duty free on his way down to California from Sarnia — he flew separately a few days later — and later expensing it.

And while they were in San Diego, the expense records show they spent $172 at a boutique called Wind Song that sells wind chimes and other garden ornaments, but not food. It was expensed, and paid out, under Ann Gray's meal allowance.

"I don't have any specific knowledge as to what they are," she said.  

Berlin and Vienna

The following year, Gray headed with her husband to Berlin for another transportation conference. They arrived four days before the convention began, and again spent time on the extra days on a city bus tour and at the zoo. Their total hotel bill alone came to $3,083.

Two weeks after returning home to southwestern Ontario, Gray was reappointed to the Blue Water Bridge Canada board for another year.

Then in October 2012, it was back to Europe for a congress in Vienna on "intelligent transport systems."

Hotel bill from Berlin trip in 2011. Mobile users, see it here

The Grays flew business class from Sarnia to Vienna, arriving Oct. 18, four days before the conference officially began.

The first two days were mostly spent sightseeing and dining: a $284 dinner at their hotel, a bus tour of the city, another dinner for $191, even a $25 bookstore purchase for a "street map/tour book."

The conference itself lasted 4½ days. On one of them, the Grays went on a morning-to-evening conference-organized "social program" — a boat excursion on the Danube River.

"It was a convention thing and we went with other delegates," she explained.

They followed it up in the following days with a visit to the Vienna Zoo.

The total bill for the trip came to $21,177, including $176 in tips to the hotel concierge, bellman and housekeeping.

Conservative supporters

Gray was appointed to BWBC's board in 2007. She and her husband, both well-known local Conservative supporters, have donated money to the party and worked on the election campaign of Sarnia's MP.

In interviews, Gray said that her political connections had no influence on her appointment — that, in fact, she was told to leave out any mention of it in her application for the position.

If you want to be 100% straight and narrow, yeah, you're right, it's probably a holiday - Former Blue Water Bridge Canada chairman Marcel Beaubien

The government was still watching BWBC closely, however. The Crown corporation earns most of its $20-million-plus in annual revenues from tolls it charges on vehicles crossing the bridge from Sarnia to Michigan, but it also got $10 million in federal stimulus funds starting in 2009.

Cabinet ministers began wrestling with BWBC about its expense policies around the same time.

Rob Merrifield, then minister of state for transport, wrote to the corporation to say that, under the law, it could not provide any benefits to members of its board of directors.

The BWBC board tweaked its rules but left intact its meal allowance of $175 a day per traveller, including alcohol — more than twice the federal norm for civil servants — and its policy allowing spousal travel.

The next year, Sarnia MP Pat Davidson wrote back to the board, telling it again to curb its benefits for directors and, specifically, to eliminate paid travel for spouses.

Marcel Beaubien, former Ontario MPP

Marcel Beaubien became chairman of Blue Water Bridge Canada in 2012, but didn't stop Gray's final trip overseas that fall to Vienna — though he says he could have. (CBC)

Finally, in May 2012 the federal government appointed Marcel Beaubien, a former Ontario Progressive Conservative member of the legislature, as the new chair.

"The first thing I had to do as chair is… I said that I would bring the expenses and — both travel and other expenses — in line with what the government guidelines were. And I created some problem with some of the board members," he told the fifth estate.

Beaubien didn't stop Gray's trip to Vienna, though he said he could have, and possibly should have.

"I had issues to deal with. And remember, I'm doing this… with my own free time. You know? So consequently, how many battles do you want me to fight for nothing?"

He said the culture among other board members — before he implemented new rules to eliminate spending on spousal travel, alcohol and sightseeing — was that they felt entitled to the expenses, but the Grays' extra days on business trips abroad were probably unnecessary.

"If you want to be 100 per cent straight and narrow, yeah, you're right, it's probably a holiday."

Transport minister's statement

Transport Minister Lisa Raitt's office issued a statement Monday evening in response to questions put to the government by the fifth estate.

Lisa Raitt Transport Minister

Transport Minister Lisa Raitt issued nearly the same statement as her cabinet colleague. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The statement repeated Finance Minister Joe Oliver nearly word for word from a week before, reacting to a CBC story last Tuesday about lavish expenses at the Royal Canadian Mint.

"We find the abuse of public funds to be unacceptable. While crown corporations manage their own expenses, they have a responsibility to taxpayers to assure that public funds are being managed properly," Raitt's statement said.

Also Monday, Treasury Board President Tony Clement announced new restrictions on travel and hospitality expenses for Crown corporations, saying that he "recently" had been "made aware of incidents where expenditures have not been managed in a responsible manner."

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