Politics

Senate bureaucrats sign contracts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars without approval from senators

The Senate administration has signed contracts with outside consultants and human resources professionals worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent months — added costs at a time when Senate expenses have ballooned by more than 30 per cent in the last four years.

'It's funny that all of a sudden there are all these contracts,' Conservative Sen. Denise Batters says

The Senate of Canada building and Senate Chamber are pictured in Ottawa on Monday, Feb. 18, 2019. Questions are being raised about increased spending. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The Senate administration has signed contracts with outside consultants and human resources professionals worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent months — added costs at a time when Senate expenses have ballooned by more than 30 per cent in the last four years.

The Senate's procurement policy demands bureaucrats obtain approval from senators "prior to initiating any procurement action for goods or services that exceed $100,000," to ensure taxpayer funds are being spent appropriately and with adequate oversight.

But in 2018, Senate administration signed a contract with ADGA Group Consultants, a security firm, worth more than $200,000 without securing any sign-off from senators on the chamber's committee on internal economy, budgets and administration — an apparent contravention of the policy.

According to a briefing note supplied to the audit subcommittee, Senate finance officials were "not able to find the information related to the approval of the contract" and the details of this particular contract "were not recorded in a consistent manner."

The internal economy committee is investigating the circumstances of this contract. "Until that point, we can't comment any further until we have the necessary information," a committee spokesperson said.

In the last year, Senate bureaucrats also have signed contracts with consultants to help its existing complement of public servants recruit new high-ranking staff, train office workers on Microsoft Office, retool job titles and descriptions on job postings, improve procurement activities and digitize records, among other tasks.

The $100,000 threshold

Contracts worth less than $100,000 awarded through a competitive bidding process do not have to be approved by senators.

Conveniently for Senate finance officials, some of the contracts in question fall just below that threshold — such as a $99,000 contract with Right Door Consulting and Solutions for a "senior business process consultant" tasked with improving the upper house's "business processes."

Administration signed a contract worth $94,572.64 with Printers Plus, spent $91,368 with BlackBerry and retained Stonework Technologies to provide 50 laptop computers as part of a required Windows upgrade at a cost of $84,70.50 in the last year. The Senate retained ADR Education to help with anti-harassment training at a cost of $97,300.

The Senate has secured Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton Consulting, at a cost of $99,637.50 to taxpayers, to conduct "spot audits" of senator and administration expenses for the 2018-19 fiscal year.

This contract, a high-spending deal actually approved by the internal economy committee, is part of an ongoing effort to police expenses after the 2013-15 expenses scandal resulted in criminal charges.

'We expect the rules to be followed'

Senate officials also gave Arlington Group Inc., an Ottawa-based private security firm, a contract now worth as much as $95,000 to hold doors open in the Senate's new home.

The procurement policy also forbids contract-splitting to evade oversight by the internal economy committee. The initial sole-sourced contract with Arlington was for only $21,000 but it ballooned to $95,000 months later.

The committee reviewed the contract after reports by the Globe and Mail and CBC News about the contract, which, because it was sole-sourced, should have been sent up to the senators for review.

"It's funny that all of a sudden there are all these contracts that are in the high 90s when the threshold for competitive ones is $100,000," Sen. Denise Batters, the deputy chair of the Senate's internal economy committee, told CBC News.

"What is the reason for what seems to be a number of outside contracts? It's a reasonable thing to look at, definitely," she said. "We expect the procurement rules and thresholds to be followed."

Batters said she would consider advocating for a lower spending threshold so that senators themselves could review more of the contracts penned by administration officials at a time when spending has increased substantially.

"We're dealing with taxpayers dollars here in a public institution. The public has a right to know what's going on and they deserve to know that senators are having the proper scrutiny over the process," she said.

Conservative Sen. Denise Batters of Saskatchewan would consider advocating for a lower spending threshold so that senators themselves could review more of the contracts. (Chris Rands/CBC)

Even when senators have a chance to review large contracts, Batters said, there is little debate or discussion at internal economy meetings.

"I do have concerns that spending is passed too quickly," she said, adding that debate over the Senate's $115 million 2020-2021 budget at a recent meeting lasted just minutes and was one of 20 agenda items for a two-hour meeting.

"It doesn't allow for the proper scrutiny to happen."

Alberta Sen. Scott Tannas, the leader of Canadian Senators Group and a past chair of the human resources subcommittee, declined to comment.

Since the expenses scandal, the Senate has sought to be more transparent about its spending and procurement process.

While the contract records posted online include dollar figures, there are few details about what those funds are being used for, beyond classifications like "professional services — other."

A 20-page financial statement that summarizes annual Senate spending is also available online.

In contrast, the U.S. Secretary of the Senate, the public servant that oversees the day-to-day operations of that body, posts an exhaustive semi-annual report online.

The most recent summary of spending ran to over 2,500 pages — and it details every dollar spent by that chamber on everything from stenography services and hair care to salaries and cellphone bills, and the costs of committees and hosting foreign dignitaries.

CBC News randomly selected nine of the dozens of contracts signed by the Senate of Canada in the last year to review.

These new contracts come at a time when the size of the Senate administration bureaucracy has also increased considerably.

Senate administration has hired 59 new full-time employees in the last two years alone — notably in the Senate's communications branch, which pushes PR material to media and the public.

A spokesperson for the Senate said the administration "contracts professional firms to support its activities when it is cost-effective to do so, or when a specific expertise is required."

A closer look at Senate spending

Beyond the contracts mentioned above, the Senate has retained Portage Personnel Inc. to help the Senate "change management activities." Portage is charging $63,657.04 to offer training to Senate staff and "support the implementation of various modules of the Senate Resource Management Systems," the Senate's system for finance, human resources, asset management and procurement.

ALTISSPR furnished a "temporary professional procurement officer," at a cost of $80,276, to help the administration with its purchasing. Like the others mentioned, the internal economy committee did not approve this spending.

Eliquo Training and Development is training Senate employees on how to use Microsoft Office software, at a cost of $30,000.

The Senate has hired a "bilingual temporary recruitment specialist" from Maxsys Staffing and Consulting at a cost of $15,435 to help the upper house "fill a vacancy within the Senate Human Resources Talent Acquisition Team."

So the human resources department has retained an outside human resources specialist to help it hire a human resources team leader.

Korn Ferry, meanwhile, is charging the Senate $15,000 to provide "professional job evaluation services," in part by drafting "ongoing revisions or updates to job descriptions/position profiles." The firm is also providing a "needs assessment for staffing."

Clarifications

  • This story has been updated from a previous version that incorrectly stated a contract for Stonework Technology was for help with IT. In fact, the contract that was awarded through a competitive process was for laptop computers as part of a required Windows upgrade.
    Mar 04, 2020 12:12 PM ET

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John Paul Tasker

Parliamentary Bureau

John Paul (J.P.) Tasker is a reporter in the CBC's Parliamentary bureau in Ottawa. He can be reached at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

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