Conservatives, Liberals spar over expenses for Chrystia Freeland's L.A. stopover

The Conservatives and the Liberals are at odds over Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland's travel expenses for her L.A. stopover in which she was a guest on U.S. comedian Bill Maher's television program.

Trade minister's office says expenses were above board and she attended trade meetings while in Los Angeles

Chrystia Freeland appeared on Bill Maher's show in November. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

The Conservatives are accusing International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland of charging taxpayers thousands of dollars so she could appear on a U.S. television program in a "vanity interview."

Freeland was a guest on the HBO program Real Time with Bill Maher on Nov. 21, where she debated the U.S. comedian on Syrian refugees and the place of Islam in Western society. The program aired two weeks after the Liberal government's swearing-in, as it made a push to speed up the resettlement of refugees in Canada.

"The minister of trade was in Manila on Nov. 19, she had her seat reserved on the government Challenger to make her way back home but instead she booked herself through L.A. and charged the taxpayers nearly $20,000 for a trip to Hollywood. And the reason? A vanity interview," Conservative MP Blane Calkins said during question period on Monday.

"Why have Canadian taxpayers have been stuck with the bill for her California dream?" Calkins said.

David Lametti, the parliamentary secretary to the international trade minister, responded for Freeland, who was in Toronto Monday attending a World Economic Forum event with Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains.

"All expenses, on all of her trips, are transparent and done according to all the various ethical guidelines that are imposed on her," Lametti told MPs.

Calkins asked again why Freeland would bill taxpayers for a "first-class tickets from Manila" and "two days in L.A. with her staff in tow."

Calkins referred to documents obtained under Access to Information showing expenses for flights, two nights' accommodation and per diems or meal allowances for Freeland and one of her staff.

"It's actually worse than that," added Conservative MP Karen Vecchio, who asked whether Freeland would be returning the money she "double-billed" taxpayers for.

"The minister travelled first class, scarfing down gourmet food, and turned around and billed per diems, for the same meals. We all know this is against the rules," Vecchio told MPs.

"Is her integrity worth more than the $104.20 that she has taken from the taxpayers?" 

A snowstorm of controversy 

In a statement, Freeland's office rejected the Conservatives's allegation of double-billing.

An official in Freeland's office explained that the minister left L.A. just before 1:00 a.m. on Nov. 21, arriving at Chicago O'Hare airport at about 7:00 a.m. that same day. The minister was not offered breakfast on the plane, the official said. 

Freeland was supposed to catch a connecting flight from Chicago to Toronto at 8:30 a.m., but a snowstorm in the Chicago area that began the previous evening and continued until the late afternoon of Nov. 21 forced the delay and cancellation of her flight. 

According to the U.S. National Weather Service the storm dumped nearly 30 cm of snow on the airport, setting records for snowfall for both Nov 20 and 21. The official said the minister spent the day in the airport, ate all her meals there, and charged her allowable $77.75 US, which was about $104 Cdn.

"The Conservatives' figures are false. There was no double-billing of expenses," press secretary Alex Lawrence said in an email to CBC News.

"As indicated in the public proactive disclosure, the total travel expenses for the entire visit to Manila, Philippines and the Los Angeles trade mission were $13,826.07," Lawrence said, adding that was in line with costs incurred by previous Conservative ministers.

The Tories pegged the trip at just over $17,000 when the cost of the staffer accompanying the minister is factored in. 

Freeland attended meetings on L.A. stop

The website for Global Affairs Canada lists several meetings for Freeland in Los Angeles on Nov. 20, including a meet with the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and California Governor's Office of Business and Economic Development, a meeting with B.C. and Los Angeles film industry representatives and with California Treasure John Chiang.

"The minister visited L.A. to reinforce the important economic relationship between California and Canada," her office said in a statement. "California is a bigger trading partner for Canada than the U.K., Japan, Germany, or France. California is the largest U.S. market for Canadians, with over $40 billion in bilateral annual trade."

"In addition to roundtables with business and creative industries during the Los Angeles Trade Mission, minister Freeland was proud to promote Canada to an American audience, including Canada's leadership on Syrian refugees."

Freeland appeared on the Maher show with Maine Senator Angus King.

Maher started by arguing that liberals don't want to recognize that the values held by Syrian refugees are at odds with American values.

"This idea that somehow we do share values, that all religions are alike, is bullshit, and we need to call it bullshit," Maher said.

Freeland objected to Maher's statement.

With files from CBC's Susana Mas