Taxpayer advocate-turned-MLA sublets Edmonton condo while claiming public allowance

Derek Fildebrandt says controversy nothing more than a political "smear."

'I won't let smear distract from real issues,' Derek Fildebrandt writes

Strathmore-Brooks MLA Derek Fildebrandt says criticisms of his housing allowance claims are nothing more than 'smear.' (CBC)

United Conservative Party MLA Derek Fildebrandt, who sublet his downtown Edmonton apartment while claiming thousands of dollars in taxpayer-funded housing subsidies, claims the controversy is just a political "smear."

The MLA for Strathmore-Brooks and former Alberta director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation had been advertising his Jasper Avenue condo on Airbnb, describing the suite as "modernly furnished and very well-kept."

"With a sweeping view of the city and is in the thick of the action on Jasper Avenue," reads the ad.

"For business or pleasure, this apartment will serve you perfectly."

Derek Fildebrandt was renting out his downtown Edmonton apartment while claiming thousands of dollars in taxpayer-funded housing allowance. (Airbnb)

Fildebrandt was charging between $50 and $83 a night for the one-bedroom suite.

It appears to have been rented out several times between January and March, with eight guest reviews posted for the apartment. The listing has since been deactivated. 

During the same time frame, Fildebrandt claimed $7,720 in accommodation allowance for his Edmonton expenses.

Fildebrandt, 31, who was elected as a Wildrose MLA in the 2015 provincial election, has not responded to CBC News' requests for comment but tweeted Thursday morning that he will donate $2,555 to help pay off Alberta's debt. 

"$2,555 over 8 months letting out my Edmonton home while unused," Fildebrandt wrote in a tweet on Thursday morning.  "I won't let smear distract from real issues."

MLAs from ridings outside the Edmonton capital region are allotted a maximum housing budget of $23,160 each fiscal year to own or lease a property in the city.

According to the rules of the Legislative Assembly Office (LAO), the allowance can be used on expenses like rent and utilities but the money is only meant to cover the actual costs incurred by members.

Fildebrandt downplayed any controversy about his apartment, telling the Edmonton Journal that it's the 21st century and it's reasonable for people who are gone half the year to sublet their apartment.

Finance Minister Joe Ceci criticized Fildebrandt on Twitter Wednesday night for using a "tax-funded apartment for personal profit."

In a statement to CBC News on Thursday, UCP caucus deputy leader Mike Ellis said the party is "reviewing this matter carefully."

"While it has been explained to be an approved LAO activity, we take fiscal responsibility seriously."

A spokesperson for Brian Jean's UCP leadership campaign said Jean would not comment on Fildebrandt's expense claims Thursday, and that Fildebrandt would have to speak for himself.

'Huge political issue'

Political analyst Paul McLoughlin said he thinks Fildebrandt created "a huge political issue" by renting out his apartment, even if it was within the rules. ​

"The [UCP] is damaged by what he's done," McLoughlin said on CBC Radio's Edmonton AM Thursday. "I think his political career is damaged."

McLoughlin said with this type of controversy, it's unlikely Fildebrandt would be seriously considered for a cabinet position, especially finance minister, if the UCP were to form government in the future.

"[Fildebrandt] has long been a critic of both the Conservatives and the NDP with respect to fiscal responsibility," he said. "Here's an example where suddenly it looks like he's competing in the rental market with a subsidized house."

Political scientist Duane Bratt of Mount Royal University in Calgary said the expense claims are especially concerning given Fildebrandt's political resumé.

"Given that he used to be the Alberta director of the taxpayers federation, who used to attack members of the [Alison] Redford government for behaviour like this all the time, there is a high degree of hypocrisy," Bratt said.

"Even if no rules were broken, the perception is that he was profiting off the taxpayer."

'A bigger can of worms'

Colin Craig, Alberta director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said Fildebrandt will have to answer to taxpayers for the controversy.

"He has to answer to the public for what he does as an MLA," Craig said. "He's no longer an employee with our organization.

"From our perspective, we're glad that he's going to turn the funds over to the legislature and put them towards debt repayment, but this is really starting to open up a bigger can of worms."

MLAs have been taking advantage of the housing subsidies for years, said Craig, and the expense claim rules need to be reviewed by the government. The federation raised the issue in 2012, but its concerns have not been addressed, he said.

"For decades, there have been MLAs taking these funds and — not necessarily using them to rent out an apartment on Airbnb — but using them to buy homes, then selling those and making hundreds of thousands of dollars off of it," Craig said.

"There's a much bigger issue there that's worth exploring."