Inside Politics

No names, no details? Senate expense audit report could be light on specifics

Attention Senate scandal watchers counting down the days -- or, in this case, months -- until Auditor General Michael Ferguson releases the already much-anticipated results of his promised investigation into Upper House expense irregularities: Don't expect to peruse hundreds of pages of Deloitte-style breakdowns of travel, hospitality and per diem claims submitted by each and every occupant of the Red Chamber.

In fact, at this point, it may be overly optimistic to think the eventual report will even identify which senators, if any, were red-flagged by the audit squad, particularly if Ferguson follows the same protocol that applied during last year's review of House and Senate management practices.

Although the methodology did include spot checks of transactions submitted by senators, the report included only illustrative examples. From the Report of the Auditor General of Canada to the Standing Senate Committee on Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration

[...] Of the 25 hospitality transactions tested, 3 concerned expense claims for purchases from the Parliament Hill Boutique. The boutique sells books, clothing, and various mementoes. We found that Senators are not required to confirm that purchases of small gifts from the boutique were expenses related to the Senator's parliamentary functions. Senators are supposed to keep documentation for hospitality expenses and gifts worth more than $50, but the Finance and Procurement Directorate does not have access to this information.

As noted earlier, Senators operate on the honour principle, with their signatures attesting that the expenditures have been incurred in carrying out the performance of parliamentary functions. From the 36 travel and 24 living expense claims that we examined, we found no purpose stated in 4 claims for travel between the home of the Senator and the National Capital Region. These travel claims were in accordance with the directives, as the Senate Administration assumed that the travel to Ottawa was for parliamentary business.

In addition, we found one living expense claim that had no purpose stated. In other cases, there was limited information to support the purpose of the travel or living expense transaction. For example, one travel claim for a trip to Washington, D.C., provided no details beyond stating that it was for parliamentary business. [...]

There also appears to be some confusion over what, exactly, a performance audit is -- and, more importantly, what it isn't.

Here's how the OAG website explains it:

Performance audits (formerly known as value-for-money audits) answer these questions:

Are programs being run with due regard for economy, efficiency, and environmental impact?

Does the government have the means in place to measure their effectiveness?

Performance audits do not question the merits of government policies. Rather, they examine the government's management practices, controls, and reporting systems based on its own public administration policies and on best practices. The Office reports its findings, which may include areas that are working well and recommendations for improvement.

Compare that to the forensic examinations conducted by Deloitte into Senators Brazeau, Duffy, Harb and Wallin, and it's difficult to see how even the most wide-ranging performance audit would result in a similarly detailed report.

So what's behind what could prove to be a public confidence-testing disconnect between expectations for the soon-to-be-ongoing audit and the report that will likely emerge?

While it can be partly attributed to a seemingly widespread misunderstanding over the parameters of a typical performance audit, Ferguson himself -- or, at least, his office -- has to take part of the blame for inadvertently leaving the impression that his review may be far more sweeping than will likely be the case

Last week, he made headlines when he told Global News that his office would be "looking at the claims of individual senators, and going through those on a specific basis," which was the first (and, as it turned out, possibly last) time that he had gone into that much detail on what his investigation of the Senate finance system would involve.

Since then, however, not only has the office steadfastly refused to make Ferguson available for follow-up interviews, but they have stubbornly refused to provide any further information at on the scope of the review beyond an anodyne statement issued last week in response to increasing pressure from media outlets looking to confirm -- and, ideally, expand on -- Ferguson's comments.

As a result, no one -- or, at least, no one outside the OAG and the Senate Chamber itself -- is entirely sure just what he intends to investigate, or how much detail will be included in the final report.

All of which is to say that if the AG ultimately ends up facing down a contingent of crestfallen Canadians whose hopes for a comprehensive, line-by-line review of questionable senatorial expense claims have been dashed by the limitations of the standard performance report, he'll have no one but himself to blame. 

Tags: auditor general, blackberry jungle, michael ferguson, senate expense scandal

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