Canada

Canadian Mint ends networking junkets for staff and trips for spouses

Stays at luxury beach resorts and travel with spouses were allowed until recently, but as a CBC investigation revealed this week, they are no longer. Here's why.

Under scrutiny for its expenses, Crown corporation repeals practices it defended last year

No more costly short-haul flights. No more paid travel for spouses. And no more trips to luxury beach resorts in the waning days of international conferences.

Last year, when CBC reporters began asking the Royal Canadian Mint about many of its travel expenses, the response was steadfast: paying such costs was part of the required networking for the mint's growing business.

Spokesperson Christine Aquino said it was a way for the Crown corporation that makes Canada's coins to connect with its clients and distributors. 

Now, as revealed this week as part of a CBC News investigation that turned up stays at top-tier hotels and gala dinners, the mint has announced a major about-face in its rules on employee and executive travel.

Mint's new rules

The changes include:

  • Eliminating all paid travel for the spouses of mint staff and board of directors members. 
  • Repealing the practice of paying for mint personnel to attend "post-conference tours," the multi-day sightseeing and networking trips that often follow global mint-industry conventions.
  • Drastically cutting back business-class air travel to conform to the federal government's general guidelines.

But what was behind the turnabout?

CBC News began asking the mint about its travel policies in 2014, and in particular why some of its personnel would remain abroad and continue to run up thousands of dollars in expenses for days after the formal end of major international conferences. 

After a congress last year in Mexico City, for example, 11 mint staff and executives headed to a luxury beach resort near Cancun for three days with dozens of other conference delegates. The official itinerary included a beach party, gala dinners and a tour of Mayan ruins.

In previous years, personnel went on post-conference trips to Australia's Great Barrier Reef, a Thai beach resort and the Austrian countryside.

'Opportunity to engage'

The mint's Aquino said at the time that the Crown corporation sends some personnel on the post-conference trips because they provide "even further opportunity to engage with member mints, key suppliers and customers."

Other people in the minting industry concurred that despite the leisurely settings, there's plenty of business that goes on.

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Send any tips about this story or anything related to federal expenses to investigations@cbc.ca or call Harvey Cashore at 416-526-4704. Contact the writer of this story at zach.dubinsky@cbc.ca

Then there was the matter of spouses. Mint policy allowed senior officers to bring their partners on trips "where it is advantageous towards the achievements of the RCM's objectives or where appropriate due to protocol or custom." In two cases, the mint's chairman took his wife on business-class flights from Toronto to Australia and Vienna, at a total cost of $19,000.

Aquino said last year it is "a business expectation… for officials within the minting industry to be accompanied by their spouse for important occasions." 

Michael Ferguson, Canada's auditor general, was also looking into the mint's travel and hospitality expenses, scrutinizing 16 trips taken by mint staff in 2013 as part of a wider look at the mint's operations.

His office reported earlier this year that a majority of those travel claims didn't include proper documentation or receipts. 

"We also found cases where some elements of the travel claim were inappropriate and cases where, in our view, there was insufficient demonstration of regard for economy," the auditor general's report says. 

About-face

When CBC News posed further questions in recent weeks, the mint would not answer specific queries about the Mexico beach resort trip or spouses accompanying executives on travel. 

"I am not going to comment on decisions that were taken in the past regarding mint travel and hospitality expenditures," Aquino wrote in an email.       

At the closing banquet of a two-day post-conference trip in Thailand in 2013, the Canadian Mint's then-CEO, Ian Bennett, right, shares a table with Thai treasury official Naris Chaiyasoot. (TEMAN)

Then, on June 1, the mint publicly declared it was overhauling its rules to no longer permit the trips to post-conferences at all, nor any spousal travel.

Overall, expenses will adhere to Treasury Board guidelines, the mint said — which among other things means most senior staff can now fly business class only on flights of 850 km or more. 

A statement from the mint said the new rules will ensure it conforms to "best business practices" and "the expectations Canadians have of a Crown corporation."   

"In early 2015, new leadership was appointed to the Royal Canadian Mint. Since then, they have implemented significant changes to the mint's rules and policies governing travel and hospitality," the statement said. (The mint's previous CEO, chief operating officer and chairman of the board all retired last year.) 

Aaron Wudrick, the federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, a national lobby group for lower taxes and accountable government, said the turnaround is essentially an admission that the mint had been doing something wrong.

"The timing seems rather convenient in all that," he said in an interview. He welcomed the changes, though. 

"I mean, I can be a bit cynical about the motive for the change but certainly welcome it nonetheless."


Keen on conferences

As reported by CBC this week, the Canadian Mint paid for 11 people to stay at a Mexican beach resort last year as part of a networking trip following a major international conference. The mint sent 14 people to the conference itself. It's not the first time the Crown corporation has paid for a dozen or more of its personnel to attend an overseas convention. The following numbers are based on CBC research. The mint wouldn't disclose exact figures.

Send any tips about this story or anything related to federal expenses to investigations@cbc.ca or call Harvey Cashore at 416-526-4704. Contact the writer of this story at zach.dubinsky@cbc.ca

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