High court won't hear NDP expenses case over mailings, offices

The federal NDP may have lost its final legal bid for judicial review of decisions by the House of Commons management body that left the party on the hook for as much as $2.7 million.

Party is on the hook for as much as $2.7 million

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh speaks to the Canadian Teachers Federation annual general meeting in Ottawa, Thursday July 11, 2019. The Supreme Court of Canada declined today to hear an appeal from New Democrats over the decisions by the Board of Internal Economy. The case started under previous leader Thomas Mulcair. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The Supreme Court may have just killed off the NDP's last legal hope to end a dispute with the House of Commons over payments to political staff, leaving the party's financial picture even gloomier.

The high court declined Thursday to hear an appeal from the New Democrats over a $2.7-million dispute with the House of Commons about salaries paid to political staff after the 2011 election.

The party was hoping the court would agree to overturn a 2014 order by the Commons' board of internal economy that the party repay the salaries. The board is a committee of MPs from all parties with official status, which oversees financial and administrative matters for MPs, including the hiring of staff to work in Ottawa and constituency offices.

In 2011, after the NDP surged into official-opposition status with dozens of new MPs, the leadership opted to have some MPs share staff to do constituency work. The problem arose when the board of internal economy discovered the staff members were not working in Ottawa, as initially believed. Instead, they were in regional offices in Montreal, Toronto and Quebec City that were rented by the NDP as a party, not by the legislators in their official public capacities.

Current Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, who was then the Speaker of the House of Commons and the chair of the board, said in 2014 that was an inappropriate use of house resources. The committee voted to order the NDP to repay the costs, which affected more than five dozen MPs.

The NDP has always maintained the order was politically motivated and has tried many times to get the courts to intervene. The Federal Court agreed with them but in February the Federal Court of Appeal disagreed, saying the courts had no jurisdiction to intervene in the internal affairs of Parliament.

The Supreme Court Thursday declined the NDP's request to appeal that decision, which is effectively the end of the road for the case in the courts.

The high court, following its usual practice, gave no reason for refusing to hear the case.

The NDP had not responded to a request for comment by mid-day Thursday.

Many of the NDP MPs affected lost their seats in 2015 but were still required to repay the costs. Some argued successfully to reduce or eliminate their bills, as they were able to prove the staff members in question were legitimate parliamentary staff and not partisan workers.

Heather Bradley, spokeswoman for the House of Commons administration, said Thursday she doesn't have a tally of how much is still owed but that the Commons is still working with the members involved to recoup the funds.

Since the last election, the NDP has struggled to raise money and in 2017, the most recent year full information is available, its liabilities exceeded its assets by more than $3 million. It also ran a $1.4-million operating deficit in 2017. Last year the party mortgaged an office building it owns in downtown Ottawa for $12 million to free up cash.

It's 2018 financial statements were due at the end of June but the party has received an extension from Elections Canada so the current state of its finances is not known.

After the 2015 election, when a majority of the 68 NDP MPs named in the case were defeated, the NDP sought an out-of-court settlement that would have seen the NDP's parliamentary research budget reduced in lieu of having the MPs repay the expenses.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau nixed that deal, saying it would condone an improper use of taxpayer money.