Federal payroll foul-up should have been disclosed, Liberals and Tories agree

Liberal and Conservative politicians agreed Wednesday that a mix-up in the payroll system at the Justice Department was significant enough to be reported to Parliament. The department chose not to declare the massive mistake, which went on for six years and is still being cleaned up, because it was "immaterial."

Justice bureaucrats taken to task for not reporting million-dollar payroll liabilities

Charlottetown MP Sean Casey, parliamentary secretary to the justice minister, says a massive payroll error at the Justice Department should have been disclosed to Parliament in the interest of transparency. (CBC)

A so-called "clerical error" at the Justice Department that led to a million-dollar payroll mix-up should have been disclosed to Parliament, government and opposition spokesmen agreed Wednesday.

They were reacting to a CBC News investigation that revealed some 3,700 department lawyers were credited with leave time they did not deserve, amounting to a liability to taxpayers initially estimated at up to $50 million.

Department officials eventually revised that number down to between $2 million and $3 million, and decided not to report it in financial statements, calling it "immaterial."

"I don't know who said that — or how they said it," said Conservative MP Tony Clement, who was in charge of the Treasury Board at the time the payroll discrepancy was discovered in 2013-14. "But they didn't say it under my authority."

Conservative MP Tony Clement, former Treasury Board president, says every taxpayer dollar is 'material' and that parliamentarians should have been apprised of the Justice Department payroll problem. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"Every taxpayer dollar is material. That's got to be how you run government.… That should never have happened, and quite frankly, we have to rectify things as soon as they happen."

The Treasury Board is a committee of cabinet that acts as the government's spending watchdog.

Sean Casey, the Liberal parliamentary secretary to the current justice minister, echoed that view, saying: "I think it would have been preferable, and in the interest of transparency, that this had been more widely disseminated."

Casey called the payroll foul-up an "administrative clerical error that happened over and over and over again — over the course of six years."

Not accurately reflected

The problem was discovered in 2013 at the Public Prosecution Service of Canada when bureaucrats noticed that lawyers' scheduling information in one computer system was not accurately reflected in another computer system used to issue paycheques.

What was thought to be a localized discrepancy affecting a few employees grew to encompass some 3,700 staff between 2007 and 2013, of which 650 had already left the Justice Department. A massive reconciliation exercise that has absorbed department resources is "almost done," Casey said.

Conservative MP Rob Nicholson was justice minister at the time the payroll problems were being assessed, in early summer of 2013, but says he was not told about the issue. (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)
"At this stage, no money has been demanded from employees. There's no indication that any employees have been overpaid," he said. "The next step is actually to deal with employees who have departed and to reconcile the discrepancies there."

The lawyers union, the Association of Justice Counsel, has also played down the problem, but nevertheless launched a grievance against the reconciliation exercise.

Conservative MP Rob Nicholson, who was justice minister until July 2013, just as the department was grappling with the problem, said on Wednesday he was not told about the payroll problem prior to his departure. He was replaced by Peter MacKay, who returned to private life last year.