Politics

Conservatives, taxpayer group urge Trudeau to address ministerial spending

The limo company that provided thousands of dollars in high-end car service to Health Minister Jane Philpott says it is willing to reimburse taxpayers.

Limo company used by Health Minister Jane Philpott offers refund to taxpayers

Thursday night, Health Minister Jane Philpott issued a statement apologizing for the 'excessive' cost of limousine rides she took in March and July and pledging to personally repay the $3,703 tab. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Opposition parties and a taxpayer watchdog group want Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to send a clear message about the way ministers and MPs use the public purse after it was disclosed Health Minister Jane Philpott spent thousands of dollars for the services of a Toronto-based limo company.

The call comes after Philpott's office told The Canadian Press it used Executive Sedan Livery Service Inc. on multiple occasions. The company is owned by a Liberal supporter who canvassed for the minister during the last federal election.

On Wednesday, the minister's office acknowledged spending $1,994 for car service on July 12, when the minister spoke at the Assembly of First Nations annual meeting in Niagara Falls, Ont., and another $3,815 for 20 trips to Toronto's Pearson airport for flights to Ottawa on ministerial business.

The disclosure followed criticism from the Conservatives, who discovered through an Access to Information request that the minister paid $1,700 on March 31 for transportation between work events.

The controversy has now sparked a request for a formal investigation into the use of Philpott's transportation from the Tories.

On Thursday, Conservative health critic Collin Carrie wrote Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson asking for a probe into the minister's "apparent violation of the Conflict of Interest Act" in her use of the vehicles.

"The decision by the minister to use the services of such a strong supporter with no apparent open process or steps taken to avoid a conflict of interest appear to be potential violations," Carrie said in the letter.

NDP MP Charlie Angus says Philpott's limo fees raise questions about whether Trudeau is really doing things differently. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The prime minister also needs to articulate that what happened in Philpott's office is not acceptable, Carrie added in an interview.

"The prime minister wrote mandate letters to his ministers," he said.

"One of the things he could have really emphasized is the understanding that this is Canadian taxpayer dollars and to see that the Liberal party has fallen back on to their old ways, their old game of using tax dollars to reward their friends."

Trudeau promised openness, transparency and a new way of doing business, NDP MP Charlie Angus said Thursday.

"This is about the actions of the minister and the way her department operates," Angus said. "How can we trust them to be accountable?"

It is important that Trudeau send a signal from the top about spending, said Aaron Wudrick, federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

"We would certainly like to hear a public statement reinforcing the importance of getting value for taxpayer dollars," Wudrick said.

The Prime Minister's Office has yet to respond to a request for comment.

Limo firm to return payments

On Thursday, Reza Shirani, the owner of the limo company, also issued a statement, vowing to reimburse taxpayers while also taking aim at Philpott's political critics.

Shirani said he is "confirming without hesitation" he will refund the total amount charged to the federal government for services provided for Philpott.

"In taking this step, I fully expect to be accused by the 'defenders of Canadian taxpayers' of making a donation of services to the Liberal party of Canada that exceeds authorized individual donation limits, even if I promise not to seek any political tax credit," he said.

"It never occurred to me that providing a service to a minister of the Crown at my company's normal and standard rates — rates that are competitive for the service we provide — would end up damaging the reputation of the MP I respect and the political party I love."

 I hope to encourage those who feed so voraciously on this petty sort of thing to focus on issues that really matter to the people of Canada-  Reza Shirani

Shirani also said he personally drove the minister on July 12 and disputes the $1,994 figure provided by the minister's office.

"It never occurred to me that charging $1,535 plus HST ... for multi-stop, multi-passenger, all-day car service on July 12 would be regarded as extravagant or excessive given the cost of the alternatives to Canadian taxpayers."

In an email to CBC News Wednesday, Philpott's office said her itinerary that day included two announcements, one in Hamilton on funding for research into chronic illnesses and the other in Toronto to announce an acute care project, and a "last-minute" meeting with Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins and First Nations chiefs to address the health emergencies in Attawapiskat and Sioux Lookout.

Later the same day, Philpott attended a gala fundraiser for a hospice in her Markham riding, according to her office.

Price of car service 'too high': Philpott

Shirani said his only purpose in responding to criticism — which he characterized as "petty political posturing" — is to restore Philpott's "fine reputation and relieve her of being required to answer for such patent nonsense."

"More importantly, I hope to encourage those who feed so voraciously on this petty sort of thing to focus on issues that really matter to the people of Canada," he said.

Shirani canvassed for the minister in the last federal election — a connection Philpott knew about while using the service.

However, Shirani said he resents the suggestion he's somehow "playing the system" or that he is an "insider" in any way.

"I know that minister Philpott and I both deserve better," he said. "I will have no further comment."

It is absolutely not appropriate for Shirani to reimburse taxpayers, Carrie said.

"The interesting thing is, the minister has acknowledged this herself. She is the one who needs to pay the money back."

On Thursday night, Philpott issued a statement apologizing for the "excessive" cost of limousine rides she took in March and July and pledging to personally repay the $3,703 tab. 

"I would like to apologize for the excessive costs related to travel for my work responsibilities. This does not live up to the standard that Canadians expect and I have taken steps to ensure this does not occur again," she wrote.

"I will personally reimburse in full the expenses incurred on March 31 and July 12 for travel to meetings that took place in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area, and in Niagara Falls. I have also asked my department to review travel booked to and from the airport with this service to ensure that taxpayers are charged for only fair-market value, and I will reimburse any excessive expenses based on departmental advice."

By the numbers

Here's a look at the travel costs she incurred, as revealed by her office, and how they compare to bills for limousine service disclosed by other cabinet ministers.

All had been asked earlier this year how much they spent on rented limousines between Nov. 3, 2015 to April 22, 2016 while on official business.

  • $1,994.73: Spent by Philpott in July to travel to the Assembly of First Nations meeting.
  • $1,708.84: Spent by Philpott in March for travel around her riding on March 31.
  • $3,815.20: Sent by Philpott on 20 trips to the Toronto airport from her home.
  • $1,515.09: Spent by Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan on a limo during a two-day trip to California.
  • $222: Spent by Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould for two limo rides from Ottawa's airport to her Ottawa office.
  • $145.09: Spent by Democratic Reform Minister Maryam Monsef for a limo at Toronto's Pearson airport for the 150-kilometre trip to her riding in Peterborough, Ont.
  • $0: Amount Philpott had said she spent on limousine service in answer to the order paper question that forced the disclosure of the others' bills.

With files from CBC News

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