N.W.T. officials' expenses sometimes very costly for taxpayers
Highest per diems and no limits around expensing ‘business’ breakfasts, lunches and dinners
A sampling of senior Northwest Territories government officials' expense claims shows that some are far less than frugal when it comes to spending tax dollars.
Some examples of those expenses: a business dinner for three in Ottawa at a cost of $312.66, round-trip business class airfare from Yellowknife to the capital for $6,916.36, and $21.47 for two Kit Kat chocolate bars and a bottle of water at a luxury hotel.
As part of the territorial government's move toward more transparency, summaries of cabinet ministers' travel expenses are published online each month. But the senior officials' expense reports, which are not published, show that some of the expenses ministers incur are not included in those online reports.
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That $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. Bohnet picked up that tab on Feb. 11, 2016, during the mid-year energy ministers meeting. His dinner guests were two of his bosses, Premier Bob McLeod and cabinet minister Wally Schumann.
Though it's not clear who ate what, the bill reveals the main courses were fillet mignon and lobster, New York peppercorn steak, and New York steak, with side dishes of french onion soup, caesar salad and escargot and one cheesecake dessert.
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The $40 tip Bohnet gave for that meal is more than double the total daily meal allowance of $18 the government pays N.W.T. residents sent south for medical treatment.
The government's comptroller general says when officials, on behalf of taxpayers, buy dinners for cabinet ministers, the cost of the cabinet ministers' meals are not included in ministers' published expense reports.
"I don't believe that would be picked up in that process," said Jamie Koe. "But it would be disclosed in the staff members' expense claim and it would identify who attended the function and what it was for."
The day before the dinner at Hy's, Bohnet also expensed a much more modest meal for himself, McLeod and Schumann, a $96.90 dinner at the restaurant 3 Brewers. The day before that, he billed taxpayers for a breakfast meeting for himself, Schumann and former cabinet minister Michael Miltenberger at the Gold Range Bistro ($35.65).
According to government records, the total cost of sending Bohnet, McLeod and Schumann to Ottawa for two nights to attend the energy ministers meeting was $14,338.40.
Beyond those online reports, the rules around expenses are not something the government wants to talk about.
The CBC requested interviews with Finance Minister Robert C. McLeod, Premier Bob McLeod and cabinet minister Wally Schumann for this story. None were available. Kam Lake MLA Kieron Testart, who chairs the standing committee on government operations did not respond to requests for an interview.
N.W.T. per diems highest in country
The Northwest Territories government pays staff and elected officials the highest per diems in Canada. They're based on the meal and incidental expense rates set by the federal government for its officials (CBC uses the same rates), but with a twist.
Whereas the federal meal allowances vary according to which region officials are travelling in (lower meal allowances when travelling in the provinces, and higher meal allowances when travelling in the North), territorial government officials collect the highest of those allowances no matter where they travel.
Administratively, it's much simpler to apply the one rate.- Jamie Koe
"Administratively it's much simpler to apply the one rate, which we believe is an adequate rate for employee travel," said Koe.
Most provincial governments set meal allowances well below the federal rate.
For example, N.W.T. government officials get $60.30 for dinner alone when travelling in Alberta. Alberta government officials can claim a total of only $41.55 per day — for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
A Northwest Territories deputy minister travelling on business in British Columbia is entitled to claim $129.70 per day in meal and miscellaneous expenses. His or her B.C. counterpart must get by on just $51.50.
Rules around expensing dinners
Though there are limits on per diems for N.W.T. government officials and politicians, there are no limits set for how much or how often they can expense business meals with others.
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."
"Generally there will be documentation in the expense claim around what the meeting was about, who attended the meeting — that would all be documented in the expense claim," said Koe.
In most of the expense reports reviewed by CBC, there was little or no evidence of what business was conducted.
Last September, NWT Housing Corporation president Tom Williams was reimbursed for a $196.58 dinner at Bullocks Bistro in Yellowknife without any information about what business was conducted or who was with him. It was the same for a $43.87 lunch at Javaroma the month before that.
"Dinner Nico Mine" was the only explanation then-president of the Northwest Territories Power Corporation Emanuel DaRosa provided to expense a $448.65 dinner at the Explorer Hotel on Dec. 14, 2016.
As part of a change in rules at the corporation last October, DaRosa's successor, Jay Grewal, was simply cut a cheque for $1,000 for an annual entertainment allowance. It was unclear if the change means the president is no longer allowed to expense business meals.