North

N.W.T. cabinet minister bristles at story on expense claims

Cabinet minister Wally Schumann said if he wants to have a steak, 'that's what I'm going to eat,' after CBC reported on senior officials' expense claims.

'If I want to have a steak and somebody bought me a steak, that’s what I’m going to eat,' says Wally Schumann

Industry, Tourism, and Investment Minister Wally Schumann said he doesn't 'have a clue' how a lavish dinner was paid for at Hy's Steak House in Ottawa, after CBC reported on government expense claims.

A Northwest Territories cabinet minister says a CBC report on senior officials' expense claims was a non-story.

The story noted principal secretary Gary Bohnet claimed a $312.66 dinner at Hy's Steakhouse in Ottawa as an expense. Bohnet's guests that February 2016 evening were Premier Bob McLeod and cabinet minister Wally Schumann.

"We went out for supper. Somebody offered to buy us supper," said Schumann in a telephone interview from England, where he was attending a mining symposium.

"I don't have a clue how he paid for it, and all of a sudden CBC has it all over the news."

Taxpayers paid for the meal. In his expense claim, Bohnet described the meal as a dinner meeting.

The three had steak dinners — one meal being a combination of steak and lobster. There were side orders of French onion soup and caesar salad, and one cheesecake dessert. There was also a $9.50 cup of blueberry tea.

A $312.66 dinner for three at Hy's Steakhouse in Ottawa is one of several examples of principal secretary Gary Bohnet expensing meals for ministers. (HysSteakhouse.com)

Schumann bristled when asked what he had to eat, saying he didn't remember.

"If I want to have a steak and someone bought me a steak, that's what I'm going to eat," he said "If CBC has an issue with that, that's your problem."

According to Bohnet's expense reports, it was the third meal in as many days he bought for Schumann, on behalf of taxpayers.

The principal secretary is a political appointee who can be hired and fired by cabinet.

Billing taxpayers northern rates while travelling south

Schumann also took issue with the story noting that N.W.T. government officials get the highest per diems — daily allowances to cover meals and other expenses when travelling — in Canada.

"CBC gets the same per diems as we do and you guys are making an issue of it," said Schumann.

Like the CBC, the N.W.T. government uses the generous per diem rates set by the federal government.

What we don't want to do is to limit the resources available to public servants when they're doing their very important work in travelling to other jurisdictions.- MLA Kieron Testart

The federal government pays higher per diems for officials when they travel in the North.

But, unlike the federal government or the CBC, the territorial government's policy is to bill taxpayers at northern per diem rates even for travel in the provinces.

The chair of the government operations committee, Kam Lake MLA Kieron Testart, said the auditor general recently reviewed travel expenses as part of a larger review of the government's public accounts. Testart said the auditor general found that policies are being followed.

"If there is a concern around inappropriate use of expenses, that isn't happening," said Testart. "The real question is around the policies themselves, and whether they are reflective of good value for money."

This receipt shows a dinner shared by Premier Bob McLeod, cabinet minister Wally Schumann, and principal secretary Gary Bohnet in Ottawa in 2016.

Committee looking at per diem rates

Testart said his committee is looking at per diem rates, "to see if we can find greater value for money with these per diems."

"What we don't want to do is to limit the resources available to public servants when they're doing their very important work in travelling to other jurisdictions to represent the Northwest Territories," said Testart.

There is no policy limiting how many meals senior officials can claim as business meals, or how expensive the meals can be.

'The real question is around the policies themselves, and whether they are reflective of good value for money,' said MLA Kieron Testart. (CBC)

The government's financial administration manual says tax dollars can only be spent on hospitality for "significant public or internal government occasions" and in "working circumstances in which it is appropriate to extend hospitality to participants."

But CBC's review of documents found there is rarely enough information on expense claims to verify whether the expensed meal meets those tests.

Testart said the Standing Committee on Government Operations is hoping to release its report on the Auditor General's review of the public accounts in May or June.

With files from Katie Toth

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