Oda says only appropriate travel costs covered

International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda said Thursday that only appropriate costs for her travel have been paid for by the government but she didn't explain why some claims have been amended from their original amounts.
International Cooperation Minister Bev Oda, in the House of Commons on Thursday, said only appropriate travel expenses have been paid for by the government. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda said Thursday that only appropriate costs for her travel have been paid for by the government but she didn't explain why or how some expenses have been changed from their original amounts.

"All incremental costs that should not have been expensed including extraneous car service, etc., have been repaid. Only appropriate expenses, eligible expenses, have been paid by the government," Oda said in question period, apparently referring to her trip to London that caused controversy last month.

NDP MPs Alexandre Boulerice and Charlie Angus raised the issue of Oda's travel spending following a CBC report on her office's refusal to say whether she has paid taxpayers back for any travel costs – in addition to the lavish hotel and chauffeured car she expensed for the London visit last June.

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.

An asterik beside some entries indicates the amount has been amended but the web page doesn't show if the amount went up or down, or explain the purpose of the amendment. The proactive disclosure policy requires ministers and their staff to post their travel and hospitality expenses online.

The limited information only shows the cost of airfare, meals, accommodation, transportation and "other expenses."

There could be acceptable reasons why some amounts, for Oda and her staff, were changed, but Oda's office won't provide any details and Oda didn't shed any light on the unanswered questions Thursday.

"We want to know how many $16 orange juice glasses and limo rides has she had, as well as luxury rooms, that's what we want to know," said Boulerice. "What has she refunded? We don't know, she remains tight-lipped."

'Problem with transparency'

Oda didn't answer any further questions, and House leader Peter Van Loan instead responded to Angus that the Conservatives "want to see taxpayer dollars respected."

"That's why ministers on this side of the House spend far less on travel than predecessor Liberal governments spent and that's why of course in this case only appropriate expenses have been paid for by the government," said Van Loan.

Boulerice said after question period that he wasn't satisfied with the responses in question period and interim Liberal leader Bob Rae said he wants to see more transparency.

"When anyone goes on a trip you fill out an expense claim form and if you're constantly having to amend that expense claim form because somebody is pushing it back or there's problem with it then there is clearly a problem with transparency," said Rae. "Clearly we don't have the kind of transparency that we'd like to see."

Stephanie Rea, Oda's director of communications, was repeatedly asked by CBC over several weeks to explain why, when, and how the amounts were amended, but she wouldn't provide any detailed information.

"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 refusal to answer questions about travel expenses comes in the wake of last month's controversy when Oda paid taxpayers back for a portion the London trip. She made the repayment after a Canadian Press story revealed Oda stayed at the lavish Savoy hotel – costing more than $600 per night – instead of the hotel where the conference was held.

She also hired a car and driver – costing more than $1000 per day – to transport her between hotels, incurred a cancellation fee, and expensed $16 for an orange juice.

Oda and her office originally said she did nothing wrong, but then she backtracked and said the expenses shouldn't have been covered by taxpayers. She initially reimbursed the government for the difference in the cost of the two hotels, the orange juice and the cancellation fee, but not the car.

She later agreed to pay back $2, 671 for the car, bringing her total reimbursement to $4,025.