Premier Alison Redford’s flights had 'false passengers,' auditor general says
Alberta premier's staff 'blocked' other passengers from government planes
A review by Alberta's auditor general found "false passengers" were booked on at least a dozen government flights, making it possible for then Premier Alison Redford to fly alone with her entourage.
Merwan Saher also concluded Redford derived a "personal benefit" by taking her daughter on dozens of government flights. Saher raises the question of whether Redford's desire to take her daughter on out-of-province trips may have influenced the decision to use government aircraft rather than commercial carriers.
These findings are contained in an internal report to the government obtained exclusively by CBC News.
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University of Alberta political scientist Jim Lightbody said he has never seen anything like the report.
"It reveals a scarcely disguised contempt for taxpayers' money," Lightbody said.
Under pressure from the opposition and the public, Redford on March 4 suspended all out-of-province travel on government planes and asked the auditor general to review the government's use of aircraft.
Saher is expected to issue a final public report next month.
Redford resigned as premier on March 23 after her caucus and the Conservative Party lost faith in her leadership as the Tories plunged in the polls, owing in part to a scandal over what the opposition alleged were lavish travel expenses.
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Redford's constituency assistant said she was unavailable for comment about the report.
Saher's report reveals how Redford's staff blocked other passengers from flying with the premier on government planes.
The government has an internal website that shows the scheduled flights and available seats for 21 days in advance.
'It reveals a scarcely disguised contempt for taxpayers' money.' — University of Alberta political scientist Jim Lightbody on report findings
"We were told by [the premier's] office staff and multiple staff from the Department of Treasury Board and Finance that for certain flights the remaining seats available on the plane were blocked to restrict access to Premier Redford on the aircraft," the review states.
Staff entered passengers into the booking system to fill the seats, then removed the passengers before printing the flight manifest.
"The implications of this practice were that other government employees or elected officials would not have been able to travel on those aircraft," the report states, adding that "both Premier Redford and the former chief of staff [Farouk Adatia] denied any knowledge of this practice."
Redford and her former chief of staff Adatia denied any knowledge of the practice of blocking passengers.
In April, a CBC News investigation revealed Redford had flown her daughter, Sarah Jermyn, on 50 government flights, including for two long weekends in Jasper. On one flight between Calgary and Edmonton, Redford also flew the family's nanny.
"We did not find any government business reason for the daughter's travel on government aircraft," the report states. It makes no reference to the flight that transported the family's nanny.
"We conclude that Premier Redford obtained a personal benefit by having her daughter accompany her on government aircraft," it says.
Saher also concluded the government's travel-expense policy requires that when a decision is made to use the government aircraft rather than a commercial airline, it must be documented. But the review found examples where discretion was exercised, but no documentation existed to explain the decision.
Redford told the auditor general she did not request the government planes, but the report notes that in every case, the request came from the premier's office.
In December 2012, Redford was booked on a commercial flight to Arizona to attend the Western Governors' Association meeting in Scottsdale. But the booking was cancelled and she flew on a government plane.
"The commercial flight and government aircraft both left on the same day within a few hours of each other," the report states. "The passengers on the government aircraft were the premier, her daughter and one security officer."
No documentation was provided to explain why the government plane was used when a commercial flight had already been booked and paid for.
"We also noted that four government officials, including the premier's executive assistant, flew commercially to attend this event," the report states, adding that "there was no process to try [to] co-ordinate their travel to reduce the cost."
Palm Springs trip
In April 2013, Redford flew with her daughter at her own expense on a commercial flight to Palm Springs, Calif., for a holiday.
After former premier Ralph Klein died, a government plane flew from Alberta to Palm Springs and returned to Calgary carrying Redford and her daughter so that Redford could attend Klein's memorial service.
The premier's office publicly explained that commercial flight options were considered, but weren't feasible because bad weather had created a backlog of passengers awaiting flights.
'Staff involved in the scheduling of that flight told us that Premier Redford insisted on using government aircraft for the return flight.' — Auditor General Merwan Saher in review
Saher's review, however, found Redford's office had identified commercial flights to return her to Alberta.
"Staff involved in the scheduling of that flight told us that Premier Redford insisted on using government aircraft for the return flight."
Redford did not repay the $9,200 cost of the flight.
The auditor general qualified his findings about Redford's use of government planes for out-of-province travel.
"We do not know, considering all of the factors, if the best travel option was selected, because there was no analysis done on the options available," the report states.
South Africa trip
The cost of a December 2013 trip by Redford to South Africa to attend the funeral of Nelson Mandela caused public outrage. Redford took a government plane to Ottawa to catch a ride on the prime minister's jet. Her executive assistant, Brad Stables, flew on a commercial flight to South Africa.
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Both Redford and Stables returned to Alberta first class by commercial carrier. The premier's staff said she needed to take a commercial flight in order to attend her cabinet's swearing-in ceremony. The government plane returned empty from Ottawa to Alberta.
The report found Redford decided to bring Stables to South Africa, "even though in our review of the documentation, we noted the federal government had taken care of the on-ground logistics."
The review further found Redford could have returned to Alberta on the prime minister's jet with enough time to attend her cabinet's swearing-in ceremony.
After initially refusing to repay the nearly $45,000 cost of the South Africa trip, Redford relented.
The auditor general's review confirmed Redford, by personal cheque, paid the government $44,254 for the South Africa trip. She issued another cheque for $3,156 to cover the cost of trips in which friends of her daughter flew on government flights, and for a March 2013 flight to Vancouver in which she attended her uncle's funeral, accompanied by her daughter.
Checks and balances needed
Under a section of the review titled "Implications and Risks if Recommendation not Implemented," the auditor general observes that whoever becomes premier in the future has "considerable influence over the way business is conducted within that office and also within the public service.
"Because of this significant influence, there needs to be a proper check and balance system established to monitor and provide oversight of the spending by that office to ensure that expenses and usage of government assets is appropriate."
'These are people who work for the citizens of Alberta, and someone, sometime, somehow, should have said, 'No, this is wrong.'" —Jim Lightbody
Lightbody, the political scientist, said many people within Redford's office and various ministries would have known about the "blatant abuse" of government aircraft, yet no one spoke out publicly.
"These are people who work for the citizens of Alberta, and someone, sometime, somehow, should have said, 'No, this is wrong,'" Lightbody said.
Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith said the auditor general's findings are yet another example of what is fundamentally wrong with a government that has been in power for too long.
"They just have a sense of entitlement that runs so deep, beyond the premier's office, into the cabinet ministers' offices, down into the level of the staff, and it is just pervasive," she said. "It is part of the culture."
Alberta is the only province in Canada that still maintains a fleet of aircraft for government employees.
Smith said Redford should be required to repay the government for all flights that carried her daughter, and she repeated her call for the government fleet of aircraft to be sold.