Nova Scotia

Richmond County travel and expense claims investigated by ombudsman

Nova Scotia's Office of the Ombudsman is investigating travel and expense claims submitted by councillors and administrators at the Municipality of the County of Richmond in Cape Breton.

Investigation launched following complaints over claims made by municipal officials and councillors

Germaine MacDonald of St. Peters applied for copies of Richmond County council's expense claims under the Freedom of Information Act. (Joan Weeks/CBC)

Nova Scotia's Office of the Ombudsman is investigating travel and expense claims submitted by councillors and administrators at the Municipality of the County of Richmond in Cape Breton.

The office said it has received a number of complaints from residents worried about how their tax dollars are being spent.

"We're doing a general investigation of spending and financial aspects of the municipality having to do with travel, and those types of expenditures that councillors and muncipal officials might incur in the normal course of doing their jobs," said Ron Crocker, a spokesman for the ombudsman.

Crocker said the investigation could take a few months or as much as a year, depending on what is found.

An annual audit required by the Municipal Government Act raised concerns about expense claims last December and made 20 recommendations to improve practices. 

When the audit results became public, some residents filed freedom of information requests to look at the expense claims themselves.

'Is it waste?'

Germaine MacDonald of St. Peters obtained travel and expense-related Visa statements for the county's warden, chief administrative officer and chief financial officer from 2009 to October 2015.

She's been combing through the 3,000 documents "to see what may be questionable or not," she said.

"When I say questionable, I don't mean illegal," she said. "I just mean questionable in terms of, is it waste? Is it direct violation of policies? Whatever the case may be."

MacDonald estimates she has about 500 receipts.

"Eighty-five per cent of those receipts either don't have an explanation, they don't have detail, or we don't have [a receipt] at all." she said. "Then my big question is, why would it have been paid?" 

A Facebook page called Taxpayers of Richmond County, NS is posting receipts and expense claims. Both the group and MacDonald are asking questions about claims for meals and liquor.

Meals and liquor claimed

MacDonald has been combing through scores of expense documents. (Joan Weeks/CBC)

The county's employee travel policy says liquor is not a reimbursable expense, and a per diem of $75 is paid for meals on the road.

MacDonald said meals are being claimed as an expense, even though a per diem is paid to cover them. Per diems are being claimed even when free meals are provided.

Richmond's CAO, Warren Olsen, said per diems are not a meal allowance, although they are claimed as such.

"It's your per diem to be on the road plus $10 incidentals. So you could say it's a meal allowance is how it's entered in the system," he said. 

"This isn't a practice that just the warden and CAO did. If councillors go to conferences and meals are provided, you know, they claim their per diem."

As for claiming liquor expenses, Olsen said: "What I would say is, look, did we require travel? Yes. Did it require sharing meals and picking up the odd tab? Yeah, it did."

He said the previous warden, Steve Sampson, and wardens before him have had a hospitality suite at the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities.

"Very common. Many municipalities do, and again, you know if the public or the councillors think that shouldn't happen, then there is a process in place on the governance side to address those concerns."