Liberals' expense postings raise questions

The Liberals' newest MP spent the most money during the first period covered by the party's promised expense account information posted online this week.

Newest MP emerges as top spender in first two-week period

Yvonne Jones, Liberal MP for Labrador, was the top spender in a two-week period in September among Liberal MPs and senators, who have just begun to post their expenses online. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The Liberals' newest MP spent the most during the first period covered by the party's promise to post expense account information online.

Yvonne Jones, who won a May by-election for the Liberals in Labrador, spent $10,640.49 on flights, accommodation and meals in the last two weeks of September.

The expenses were posted on the website earlier this week, linked from each MP and senators' biography page.

What bumped Jones' expenses into the top spot was the cost of her assistant's flight to an event she attended in Iqaluit.

Jones was the only MP or senator who took a trip accompanied by an assistant during the two-week window the postings cover, other than Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who attended an event in Toronto with his aide Tommy Desfossés.

Jones' assistant, Val Oliver, listed as her media contact in Labrador, took a return flight from Goose Bay, NL, to Iqaluit at a cost of more than $3,700. Meals and hotels added up to another $1,000.

Reached by phone in Goose Bay, Oliver described the trip as a meeting of the Nunavut Chamber of Commerce. As well, Jones met business people and politicians, including the premier of Nunavut.

No press conferences held

Oliver said no press conferences were held during the five days he was there. "CBC North was around and I think Yvonne had a quick off-camera chat with one of the reporters," he said, but she wasn't part of a broadcast story.

Jones, in a phone interview from her Ottawa office, said, "Why would I take my communications director? Because it's important to have continuity between the offices in which I am working."

Jones, the Liberal critic for northern development, says Labrador and Nunavut share similar issues, such as a housing crisis in aboriginal communities and problems with search and rescue.

She said she needs Oliver to become informed and knowledgeable. "So he would be my liaison person who would deal with the Chambers of Commerce, the towns in Labrador, the Inuit governments, on the ground, to dialogue and keep those lines of communication open between Labrador and Nunavut."

As an MP, Jones is permitted to use her 64-point travel system, where one point is worth a return flight, for assistants' travel.

"We didn't do anything wrong, there's no laws broken here. This is the cost of doing business in the North. I don't have the advantage of jumping on a train to Toronto and taking all staff with me on a free pass."

Jones said she never books business class tickets, and buys flight passes to save money.

Scant details on postings

The Liberals are using the model cabinet ministers employ to post expenses. Taxis, car rentals or public transit are described as "other" transportation and no receipts are provided.

For a trip to Ottawa for a national Liberal caucus in September, some MPs charged $30 for "other" transportation, while others charged more than $400.

New Brunswick MP Dominic LeBlanc, for instance, charged $482.20 for other transportation, on top of a $1,200 return airline ticket between Moncton, NB and Ottawa.

In an interview, LeBlanc said after the caucus meeting in Ottawa he flew to Halifax, rather than Moncton, for an interview with ATV television. His flight pass, he said, allowed him to fly to Halifax for the same price. Once in Halifax, there were no night flights to Moncton, so he rented a car and paid a drop-off charge. Those costs, as well as airport taxis, added up to more than $400.

Senator George Baker posted less than $200 for a return Gander-Ottawa trip. Reached by phone in his Ottawa office, Baker said he purchased a flight pass in June, which covered his September flight.

He said he buys passes because they are cheaper, and said he sometimes uses Aeroplan points. He doesn't buy business-class seats. "You can't between Gander and Ottawa," he said. "You start off on a Beechcraft."

Postings don't go back in time

The Liberal posting scheme has been criticized because it does not go back in time and Liberals had plenty of warning their expenses would be made public. The Conservatives, who announced Thursday they too will post expenses, are starting from this point on, for publication in November.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May posts all her expenses in exhaustive detail, including scanned receipts.

The NDP, who called Trudeau's initiative to have his party post expenses a "stunt", is now the outlier, since it has no plans to post expense.

The New Democrats say they want Parliament to oversee publication of expenses, rather than MPs posting on the honour system without any outside check of whether the numbers are accurate or honest.