Lavigne's expenses: Senate's hands tied

As Senator Raymond Lavigne's fraud case crawls through the courts, taxpayers have to keep paying his expenses.

It is the kind of thing that drives taxpayers crazy — a senator charged with fraud in 2007 is barred from the upper chamber, but today continues to charge over $10,000 a month in expenses on top of his $132,000 annual salary.

Almost four years ago, RCMP charged Senator Raymond Lavigne with fraudulently misusing his government expense account.

That prompted the Senate to bar him from voting or even setting foot in the upper house, but left him with his salary and expense accounts intact.

With his case remarkably still crawling through the courts, the senator has so far cost taxpayers over $700,000 for work that remains a bit of a mystery even among his Senate colleagues.

Judging by Lavigne's website, his expense-enhanced life in the service of all of Canadians appears to consist mainly of attending rubber-chicken events and the grand opening of a new IGA grocery store.

All of which has left the red chamber full of equally crimson faces, embarrassed by a situation that can only enforce the already jaded view of so many Canadians toward the Senate.

Little senators can do

Senator David Tkachuk, head of the powerful board of internal economy that oversees expense accounts and other spending in the upper chamber, said the Senate's hands are tied until the courts are finished with the Lavigne case.

"He's on what is called a leave of absence," Tkachuk said in an interview with CBC News.

"He has not been found guilty of anything. There is no presumption of guilt. Therefore, he can do what he wants as a senator, within the rules."

That said, Tkachuk left little doubt the Senate will be looking at ways to avoid another embarrassing situation like the Lavigne case.

"We are going to have to deal with the matter, no matter what happens," Tkachuk said.

He said even if a senator were found guilty, the others would have no powers to kick him out.

Instead, the Senate could try to force out Lavigne by cutting off his salary, expense accounts, office and other benefits of the job.

All the benefits except one, that is — his pension.

Conviction wouldn't affect pension

Even if he were convicted and run out of the Senate, Lavigne would almost certainly be entitled to a parliamentary pension that today would be worth about $33,000 a year, indexed for life.

Tkachuk said: "I don't think the law allows us to deal with that."

Aside from perhaps providing solid sitcom material, this bizarre saga points to a much larger problem for Canadian taxpayers — namely, the murky cesspool of expense accounts for all senators and MPs.

The latest government figures show senators' expenses collectively cost taxpayers over $19 million a year.

Over at the House of Commons, MPs last filed annual expense claims of more than $22 million for travel alone.

While the honourable members of both houses of Parliament claim these kinds of annual accounting figures are proof of transparency and accountability to taxpayers, practical reality is something quite different.

Take Lavigne, for example: Government documents show that in three months last fall, he billed taxpayers $30,787 in expenses on top of roughly $32,000 in pay.

Those charges included over $8,400 in travel, $17,708 in "office" costs and $4,528 for "living expenses" in the Ottawa area.

But travel costs exactly to where and on what official business, taxpayers apparently have no right to know.

Little transparency on expenses

Last year, MPs collectively spent over $1.5 million on hospitality. But don't ask whom they were wining and dining at public expense, much less why.

In the world of parliamentary expense accounts, actual spending details are none of the public's business.

Parliament is one of the very few institutions of government completely beyond the reach of the access-to-information laws. 

For years, even the auditor general has been denied access to the books of the Commons and Senate, which together cost taxpayers more than $500 million a year.

The current watchdog of government spending, Sheila Fraser, has finally shamed both houses into letting her conduct "performance audits" of the two institutions.

But both the Senate and Commons agreed only after Fraser convinced them she would just be sampling a few expense claims along the way, and not conducting widespread forensic audits of members' spending. 

Notably, it was those kinds of detailed forensic investigations of British MPs that helped bring down the previous U.K. government in a hail of expense account scandals.

So far, there's little chance of that happening here, no matter how the gavel falls in the case of a senator with good reason to laugh all the way to the bank.