Oda's staff silent on travel expense changes

International Cooperation Minister Bev Oda's office is refusing to explain why travel expenses required to be posted on her website have been amended from their original amounts or to answer whether she's paid taxpayers back for any inappropriate expenses.

Expenses 're-examined' but no details given

International Cooperation Minister Bev Oda visited a refugee camp in Kenya last July. In recent weeks, her office has refused to explain why or how the amounts for expenses filed by the minister and her staff for that trip, and others, were amended from the original amounts. (CIDA)

International Cooperation Minister Bev Oda's office is refusing to say whether she has paid taxpayers back for any inappropriate travel costs in addition to the lavish hotel and chauffeured car she expensed for a trip to London last summer.

Oda's office also won't say why travel expenses for trips to Haiti, Korea and East Africa over the last year have been amended on her department's proactive disclosure website.

Oda, who is the MP for the Ontario riding of Durham, is in charge of the Canadian International Development Agency.

There could be acceptable reasons why the airfare, meal and other expenses were changed from the original amounts, but Oda's office won't provide any details.

Stephanie Rea, Oda's director of communications, acknowledges that past expense claims were recently reviewed and amended, "in the interest of accountability," but won't explain why or what exactly was changed.

The refusal to provide information comes in the wake of last month's controversy when details emerged about Oda charging taxpayers with a stay at the swanky Savoy hotel in London last June. The room cost more than $600 per night.

Oda was originally supposed to stay at the hotel that was hosting the conference she was attending, but upon arrival in London she booked a room at the Savoy instead. Oda also billed taxpayers about $1,000 per day for a car and driver to transport her to the conference, a short cab ride away from the Savoy.

When the Canadian Press broke the story, Oda said she had nothing to be embarrassed about — but wouldn't explain why she switched hotels. Her office said all Treasury Board guidelines were followed.

Oda paid back $2,671.45 for car and driver

The minister then backtracked on April 24 and offered an apology in the House of Commons. She said the expenses were "unacceptable" and should never have been charged to taxpayers. She personally paid back $1,353.81 to cover the tab for the difference in cost between the two hotels, a cancellation fee, and a $16 orange juice from the Savoy.

But opposition MPs demanded she also cover the costs of the car and driver, since they were directly related to the change in hotels. Oda's office said she would pay back the added transportation cost, but didn't provide an amount.

CBC News has confirmed that amount was $2,671.45, bringing the total amount of Oda's reimbursement to $4,025.26.

When asked if Oda has repaid taxpayers for any other trips that she originally filed expense claims for, Rea responded that all of her expenses are disclosed through proactive disclosure and that no further information could be provided.

International Cooperation Minister Bev Oda took a trip to Haiti in January. The proactive disclosure page of her department's website shows expenses for the trip were changed from the original amounts but her office won't say why or how. (Canadian International Development Agency)

Proactive disclosure is a policy that, according to Treasury Board, is meant to enhance transparency and oversight of public resources. One of its measures is the mandatory publication on departmental web sites of travel and hospitality expenses.

The limited information that is posted online does not indicate whether Oda personally paid for any portions of any of her trips.

Rea was asked repeatedly over the course of several weeks whether Oda has repaid taxpayers for any expenses that she originally claimed, in addition to the London trip, and to explain why entries on the proactive disclosure pages for several of Oda's other trips have been amended.

Expenses "re-examined"

She refused to answer the questions. "At this time, all I can say is that all expenses were re-examined, all in the interest of accountability," she wrote in an email.

"I apologize, but I'm sticking with my answer," Rea said in a follow-up phone conversation.

The proactive disclosure section of Oda's department website shows expenses for the following trips have been amended:

  • Meal expenses for Oda, Rea, and one of Oda's policy advisors, Alayna Johnson, were amended for a trip to Haiti in January. The total cost of the trip for all three people was $10,034.34.
  • "Other expenses" filed for Oda's trip to Korea in late November and early December were amended. Johnson's expenses for transportation, accommodation, meals and "other expenses" were also amended. The total cost of the trip for Oda and Johnson was $15,166.32
  • Oda, her executive assistant Clarissa Lamb and Johnson travelled to Kenya and Sudan last July and their airfare expenses have been amended. They each spent around $9,000 according to the most recent posting. Total expenses for the trip were $32,799.21. That includes $523 in airfare that Johnson spent for an "urgent return" from Calgary so that she could go with Oda to East Africa.

The London trip was not the first time Oda paid taxpayers back. In 2006, she used limousines to ferry her to and from the Juno Awards ceremony in Halifax, racking up $5,475 in bills. When the expenses were criticized in the House of Commons, she said she had reimbursed the taxpayer $2,200 of the bill.

A year later, Oda billed taxpayers more than $1,200 for another limousine ride that took her to both a government event and a party.