Chris Hall: Clipping Senator Pamela Wallin's wings

Contradicted by colleagues, facing police investigation, the once popular broadcaster is firmly in Senate purgatory, Chris Hall writes. But there may well be merit to at least some of her arguments.

Contradicted by colleagues, facing police investigation, the once popular broadcaster is firmly in Senate purgatory

Senator Pamela Wallin said Monday the auditor's report is 'fundamentally flawed.' But her Senate colleagues don't seem to agree. (Patrick Doyle / Canadian Press)

The Senate is calling in the RCMP to investigate Pamela Wallin's travel expenses. The judgment of Senate colleagues who reviewed her file is already in.

"The vast majority of senators know the rules,'' Conservative Gerald Comeau, chair of the Senate committee on internal economy, told reporters in announcing the Wallin matter had been referred to the Mounties.

"I think I can speak for colleagues on both sides that we found aspects of the report very troubling,'' added the Liberal vice-chair, George Furey, although he refused to say what those troubling things are.

What is clear from the report by auditors with the accounting firm, Deloitte, is that Wallin took a lot of trips at public expense.

She said it was part of being an activist senator, and saw it as her duty to accept invitations to speak on topics as varied as women in politics and the war in Afghanistan.

In making these trips, she often stopped in Toronto, where she owns a condo, for days at a time.

Conservative Senator Gerald Comeau: 'The vast majority of senators know the rules.' (Canadian Press)

What's less clear is what the senator did there. In some cases Wallin herself had trouble recalling.

In one entry in her computer calendar, dated June 16, 2009, Wallin indicated the purpose of the trip was to speak at a fellowship award dinner. In fact, that engagement had occurred a year earlier, in 2008.

On another, Wallin claimed expenses for a July 2, 2009 trip to attend a military tribute. In fact, the auditors found she had sent regrets, and didn't attend.

This might all be chalked up to sloppy bookkeeping, except for one thing. Wallin, or someone else, had altered her computer calendar sometime in 2013, after the audit began, adding some events and deleting others in an attempt, she says, to be helpful.

In total, the auditors identified about $121,348 in travel claims that should not have been billed to the Senate. Another $20,000, the report says, falls into a grey area and they're leaving it for the Senate itself to decide whether the trips were really on public business.

For her part, the beleaguered former journalist, former diplomat and, now, former Conservative got her side out Monday before the findings were made public.

She insisted the audit was fundamentally flawed, and that rule changes introduced in 2012 were retroactively applied to her travels before then. She said she never tried to mislead the auditors.

She also said the alterations to her calendar were done on the advice of Senator David Tkachuk, the former Conservative chairman of the committee on internal economy, to simplify the entries by including only relevant information.

Tkachuk told reporters Tuesday that he doesn't remember it quite that way.

"It was a passing comment in an hour-long conversation,'' he said. ''If she did something wrong, no one told her to do it.''

Senate purgatory

Contradicted by colleagues. Facing police investigation. As of today, Pamela Wallin is a senator who is no longer allowed to travel on the public's dime except for direct flights to her home province — and even those will be monitored by the Senate.

It's a purgatory shared with three other senators: former Conservatives Mike Duffy and Patrick Brazeau, and former Liberal Senator Mac Harb.

Whether all, some or any of them will be charged with anything remains to be seen. And probably won't be known for some time.

What is clear is that their reputations, and by extension the reputation of the Senate itself, are badly damaged, likely irrevocably.

George Furey said as much Tuesday.

"Colleagues I have spoken to during the summer tell me that everywhere they go they are being mocked. They find it very, very difficult. It's a difficult time for the institution, no question.''

And yet, there may well be some merit to Wallin's arguments.

Senator Hugh Segal, for one, said the auditors told him that there is no evidence Wallin intended to mislead, and he dismissed the decision to refer her case to the RCMP as childish.

"I've gone through the report in great detail, and I'd be surprised if the RCMP found anything of interest.''

It is also a fact that the Senate's administrative rules are open to interpretation. Her trips to speak to groups about women's issues, or Canada's role in Afghanistan, could be considered legitimate Senate business.

Other senators work diligently on public causes and seem to know what falls within the rubric of Senate business.

Former general Roméo Dallaire, for example, is at the forefront of the international effort to stop the use of child soldiers. Jim Munson is a tireless crusader for research into autism. Bert Brown, now retired, criss-crossed the country promoting an elected Senate.

Wallin's supporters see her work in the same light. But there is a difference.

Wallin's travel patterns caught the attention of Senate finance officers. (Between her appointment in January 2009 and September 2012, she submitted $532,508 in travel expenses.)

They referred her expense claims to the committee on internal economy. And Wallin began reimbursing taxpayers for improperly claimed trips.

To date she's repaid more than $38,000, and Monday, before Senator Comeau and his committee made their demands, Wallin promised to pay back the remaining amount, with interest.

Comeau says she has 30 days to do that.