Politics

Senate to use outside arbiter in future expense disputes

Less than a month before the auditor general is expected to hand down a sweeping review of senators' spending, the Senate committee at the centre of the ongoing expense controversy has decided to bring in an outside arbiter to deal with disputes.

Few details available on new process to handle repayment requests

The Senate internal economy has decided to bring in an 'independent adjudicator' to help deal with disputes over expenses. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Less than a month before the auditor general is expected to hand down a sweeping review of senatorial spending, the secretive Senate committee at the centre of the ongoing expense controversy has decided to bring in an outside arbiter to deal with reimbursement-related disputes.

"The appointment of an independent adjudicator ensures that questions of reimbursement will be dealt with in a timely and open fashion," acting Senate Speaker Leo Housakos said in an emailed statement to CBC News.

"All decisions on reimbursement by the steering committee, the arbitrator and the standing committee on internal economy, budgets and administration will be made public."

As yet, however, few details are available on exactly how the new process will work.

The Senate internal economy committee has not released the text of the resolution, which was adopted by the committee during a closed-door session on Wednesday.

Under the current system, disagreements over expense claims are handled entirely within committee, which conducts virtually all its business in secret.

Committee attacked at Duffy trial

Both the committee and its clandestine proceedings have been dragged into the spotlight during the trial of suspended Senator Mike Duffy, who is facing 31 charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery, several of which are directly related to his Senate travel and living expenses.
Conservative Senator Carolyn Stewart Olsen represents New Brunswick but worked for Prime Minister Stephen Harper as his press aide in Ottawa before her appointment. Earlier this week at Mike Duffy's trial, defence lawyer Donald Bayne suggested Stewart Olsen shouldn't "sit in judgement" of Duffy on his residency and housing claims. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

It was the internal economy committee that ultimately instructed Duffy to repay nearly $90,000 in expenses it retroactively deemed to have been inappropriately billed to the Senate.

Duffy's defence attorney, Donald Bayne, has repeatedly pointed to the behind-the-scenes maneuvering of the committee in his efforts to convince the judge trying the case that his client was singled out for punishment.

He has also made several references to expense claims filed by some of Duffy's former Conservative caucus colleagues who, he said, had "sat in judgement" of his client, including Senate committee members Carolyn Stewart Olsen and David Tkachuk.

Auditor general finishing report soon

Auditor General Michael Ferguson is expected to deliver the results of his review of senators' spending in early June — nearly two years after work began on the audit. 

Ferguson's report is eagerly anticipated as some wonder how widespread abuse of the Senate's vague expense rules might be. Senators like Nancy Ruth have complained about the detailed nature of the audit.

In his statement, Housakos said the proposal "has been in the works for some time," and is "in keeping" with the efforts made by the late Senate Speaker Pierre Claude Nolin to "modernize the institution he so believed in."

The funeral service for Nolin, who passed away last week, is Thursday in Montreal.

Housakos is expected to continue as acting speaker for the remainder of the current parliamentary session.

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