Transcript: Senator Pamela Wallin on her expense claims

CBC's Peter Mansbridge sat down Thursday afternoon for an exclusive interview with Senator Pamela Wallin about her involvement in the ongoing Senate expense claims controversy.

Senator Pamela Wallin breaks her silence on the Senate expense controversy

Senator Pamela Wallin speaks with CBC's Peter Mansbridge on the Senate expenses controversy. (CBC)

CBC's Peter Mansbridge sat down Thursday afternoon for an exclusive interview with Senator Pamela Wallin about her involvement in the ongoing Senate expense claims controversy. Here is the full transcript of their interview.

So, why are you doing this? You’ve been, you know, very quiet through this process and you made a point of saying you didn’t want to talk until it was all over. It’s not over.

It isn’t over and that’s exactly the problem. We were first told we’d have the result in January, then in February, and then in April and then, you know, now maybe the middle of the summer. And nobody more than me is hoping that’s the case. 

But I think it’s getting very difficult for people, it’s difficult for me. And I’d like to at least express some of my feelings about this.  I’m very sorry, obviously, that I’ve caused all of this grief for my family, and my friends and my fellow parliamentarians.  And I think taxpayers have a right to know. So I want to say some things about this.  But you know, I’m just waiting for this process to come to a final conclusion and I hope we get that before September.

So, when you say you’re sorry, you’re sorry for the grief you’ve caused others. But are you sorry for any actions? Was there something you did that’s caused the grief?

Here’s the thing. When I decided to turn my attention to public service – I was in journalism for many years, as you well know and the public does too – and the Prime Minister then asked me to go to New York after 9/11. Prime Minister Harper then asked me to go to Afghanistan and then in turn to come into the Senate.  I’ve always seen everything I do as a bit of a mission. I saw journalism as that too, but I really found my ground here. So, I came into the Senate I think trying to be different than other Senators, agreed to an eight-year term, term limits in and out, make your contribution, move on, let somebody else do it. To really take up a cause and an issue and really see if you couldn’t make a difference.  And because of my time in New York and Afghanistan, I really reconnected with the military, the men and women who serve us. And I really thought that that is something I could usefully contribute to and try and make a difference.  It means you’re busy. I gave more speeches about Afghanistan in this country than any other single topic because people were really interested. They wanted to know what was going on.  So I do everything whole hog. I kind of throw myself into it. And what I didn’t do was mind the shop properly. There’s a lot of paperwork particularly in government, every time you move, every time you go anywhere. Sort of more paperwork than is humanly possible to keep on top of. So I made mistakes.

But it was you personally who made mistakes? Do you blame your staff?

No, I sign the documents, so I take responsibility. I take full responsibility for this. I should have gone over it with a fine-toothed comb, as anybody should, to make sure, but I just didn’t.  I was doing what I thought my job was.  To not sit in Ottawa in an office, not sit in the Senate chamber always, but to be out there. Connecting with people who had issues, who had concerns, who wanted to connect with the political process. So I am sorry —

What are we talking about in terms of the problem? Was the problem, you know, travel expenses? Was it flights? Was it that you were charging the Senate for things that the party should have been charged for?

No, it didn’t have anything to do with the party.  The problems that we discovered — and long before there was any audit, my office got on this — I’ve got a staff of two and me and we spent every night, and we are still there, going through, you know, I want to get, I want to have every fact in my hand when we do this.  So we started to see problems, where things that should have been charged to a third party weren’t. It was just kind of going through the Senate system as it always had for many years. New rules came in, in 2012, so going forward that’s fine. One of my concerns is we don’t try to superimpose those rules on the past. But —

But was it travel?

Yeah, it was travel.

It was all about travel?

It’s all about travel. I’ve never — I don’t submit entertainment claims, I half the time don’t put in my per diems. I’m not concerned about that.

So we’re talking flight costs?

Flight costs. Flight costs. So money is not in my pocket, the money is in the pocket of the airlines. And it’s mostly —

And it’s about whose pocket it came out of to pay the airlines.

Yeah. That’s right.  And it should have —

What about residency? Is there anything at issue, financially, on residency?

No. We have gone through this. The Senate has signed off on it. Even the Prime Minister, sort of said, you meet the requirements. It’s a very simple test. You know, do you own $4000 worth of property in the province that you represent? You declare your primary residence in the province you represent. It’s a pretty straightforward thing, you know. Outside, when you drive into Wadena, Saskatchewan there’s a sign right there, it says "home of Pamela Wallin." It’s my home. The people who live there think it’s my home. The people of Saskatchewan, I think, see me often enough to know it is my home. And I don’t just mean Wadena, I mean across the province. Of course I’ve lived other places. When you’re in the media business, you’re in Toronto. When you’re in the journalism business, writ large, you’re around the world. When you’re a diplomat, you’re in New York. So yes, I’ve lived all sorts of other places. But, lots of people today don’t work where they live, or vice versa. People get on planes to go to work. They get in cars to go to work. It’s a different climate that we’re living in than in the old days where people went to Ottawa, stayed there, went home once a year on the train. We’re just not living like that now.  So it’s all related to travel.

Let’s get back to the issue that you say is the sole issue that’s at hand, which is flight expenses, travel expenses. We’re not talking about a $25 cab ticket here. We’re talking at least $40,000 you’ve paid back.

Yeah, $38,000, but yes.

$38,000 and change, and there may be more?

There may be more, I don’t know.

That’s a lot of money.

Yes it is.

And it slipped through the system somehow?

Well that’s part of the issue. I mean, you have a failsafe in there, which supposedly is the Senate finance system, that’s supposed to check that. You know, I didn’t have travel claims rejected. But there were mistakes. Some of the concern and some of the things that I’ve paid back at this point, also for me, are a pretty fundamental issue and it hasn’t been resolved yet. But this whole question of going to Saskatchewan directly. They have two categories of travel: regular and other. Your regular travel is when you go home. But, they want you to get on a plane and get directly there. And no stops don’t, you know, don’t pass go, don’t collect you $200, just go home. That isn’t how I operate. If I have a day like a Friday where I can go to Halifax or Edmonton or Toronto and do a speech or do an event, I will do that on the way home.  I am still going home. That doesn’t count as travel to my home. It counts as "other." So the numbers in this category are large. They’re large for people who say, "why isn’t she going to Saskatchewan?" Well, I was. I was there 168 days last year.  So, I got there somehow. I just did it, sometimes, not directly. There are no direct flights out of Ottawa.  Anybody who tries to fly to Saskatchewan or leave Saskatchewan knows how difficult it is.  It’s not a province that’s really well served. And I try to make best use of my time. So if I’m going to do something—

Was there that imbalance in the other Senators from Saskatchewan’s charges?  No, not that I’m aware of.

But, I mean, they were more on the direct-to-home flights, as opposed to the "other" flights?

Yeah. I, you know, I do a lot of public speaking. I do a lot of other events.

Are those for the Senate or are those for the party?

No, for the Senate. I did very little direct party work. Obviously in Saskatchewan, I went and campaigned for some of my colleagues, obviously I would do that.  But, there weren’t charges associated with that, because I’m actually at home.

You know there have been other examples with other Senators of this issue of double billing.

Yeah. And we have found none of that. Zero. None.

You’ve found none, and the auditors have found none?

Well I don’t know what the auditors have found because we don’t have the report.  That’s why nobody, you know, more than me, wants that report, as soon as we possibly can. This is a total distraction from what I want to do. I want to do my work. As I said, I only signed up for a short time. So I want to make the best use that time.  I don’t want to take time away from the causes that I think are important. To really be settling this and dealing with this on a daily basis and being chased by cameras – it it’s just a horrible process. I mean, I’ve had camera crews outside the old folks’ home in Wadena where my mother who has dementia lives, you know. This is nuts. They didn’t sign up for the Senate, I did, so I don’t want my family and my friends and my community impacted by this. You know, it’s not their issue, it’s mine. So the sooner that we can solve this –

So you don’t mind them chasing you around, it’s when it starts — ?

Of course I mind.

But you know the profession. That’s part of the profession.

Well, it is. It’s a greater part than I think than it used to be. I mean, I can’t imagine what my mother would have to say, in her condition, that would shed any light on this story. So, I don’t think that’s about journalism. But, you know, it’s tough on everybody going through this. So, you know, I want it to be dealt with. And then I can get back to doing what I think matters.

Let me back it up a little bit. Because, as you well know, a lot of Canadians are not just puzzled by this, they’re mad about it.


So let’s deal with a couple of the issues on that front. You’ve paid back tens of thousands of dollars. There may be more.  You have resigned from the Conservative caucus, or at least stepped back from the conservative caucus.  You’ve resigned your positions on a number of boards.


But, you haven’t resigned from the Senate. Why not?

Because I want to see these issues dealt with. I am doing my level best, to sort out my particular case and make sure there are no more issues and no more concerns. But I think it’s an important point of principle about what we do there and how we do it. And so I want to establish some of these things, for my sake, but also for people who will come after me. That you can be an activist, that you can be out there. That it is your job to do something more than sit inside the Senate and collect a paycheque.  That you should be connected with people. I stepped aside from my boards because I was becoming a distraction. Those people are in the business of doing business. And if the board member is there to provide advice and to be a resource and I can’t do that if I’m on the front pages of the newspaper and distracting them.

Would you go back on those boards if this thing — ?

Well that’s not my decision to make.  Look, I’m very proud of the kind of work that I did on boards.

Did they try and talk you out of it? The resignations?

I think there was reluctance on both sides. Nobody wants to do that.  You have a relationship because you’ve built that. And it’s built on trust and because you’ve brought something to the table. I also happen to think that working on boards and on outside activities and doing all that makes you a better Senator. Because then you’re bringing something back to that table, too, which is you’re not living in that Ottawa bubble. You’re talking about what the real world is, what’s the impact of the policies that we’re all dreaming up there and the legislation that we’re dealing with and trying to improve and pass and do all those things. How does it affect the real world? And I think that’s why you do that. Lots of Senators today, and lots of Senators in the past, have served on boards. Mike Kirby, a good friend, you know, he was a Senator for years, he wrote some of the best reports on health care and mental health in this country and changed the discussion about it. And he did that while a Senator, and while serving on corporate boards. I think they feed each other. I think it makes you better at both.

And a Liberal Senator.

He was a Liberal Senator, but there’s lots.

What about the Conservative caucus? Was that your decision or was it clear to you they wanted you out?

It was clear to me that they wanted me out. That was, a phone call comes and you’re given an hour to resign or you’ll be fired, for lack of a better word.

Is that what happened?

That’s what happened.

From whom?

From the leadership in the Senate and from the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff. So, you know, that’s — I understand, that —

The Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff that day was Nigel Wright?

Well, not that day — it was the incoming Chief of Staff that day, because Nigel had, was, I think, you know, not —

What did he say?

Well, I think that was that.  They just said, this is, you know, their argument was that this was, you know, a distraction and that I was not representative of the views that they wanted to have in public. Look, I mean, you know what, am I surprised by this? No.

But it sounds like a closed door? No matter what happens here, that relationship is done.

Well, look, that’s for them to decide. I share a lot of the views on economic policy. My whole connection with the Prime Minister started with the, his request for me to be on the Afghan panel.

Let’s talk about the relationship with the Prime Minister. Because in mid-February, this had already started. It was already getting headlines. He stood up in the House of Commons and was extremely supportive of you.

Yes, I thought so and I was appreciative.

Well, things changed. So what happened, did he let you down or did you let him down?

I don't know what happened, nothing; there was nothing different in my world. I mean I’m going over these papers, as I said, endlessly and there was no new information as far as I was concerned. They may have other lines of communication with the auditors, I don't know. But, nothing changed in terms of the facts of the case to my knowledge.

Did he talk to you before the first statement?

No. No. I didn't feel it was appropriate to have that conversation with the Prime Minister. I wanted to do my own homework and figure out where I actually sat before that conversation ever occurred. So I didn't have this discussion with him.

Did he talk to you at all after —


 — that February statement?


So you've never talked to the Prime Minister on this issue?

No. I have not.

How about Nigel Wright?

Yes, I talked to Nigel about it and I kept him in the loop as we were going. I assured him that we had begun this process in the office. We were working, literally, night and day on this and I kept him abreast of those developments. Just, you know, in the loop.

And when you started making payments back, did you tell him about that?

I'd already done that, I didn't have that conversation with him. I mean, I informed him of it after the fact.

But he knew you were paying back, or that you had paid back?

Yes, I 'm sure I told him that, I mean, we —

But you know what I'm getting at. Did he ever offer to help you pay?

No. No, no, no. It would have never been discussed, I don't, you know, I would have, that conversation would have come to end. These are my mistakes and I will pay my bills. I have worked every single day of my life and I will continue to do that in one way or another and I have always paid my own bills. Period. Full stop. He did not offer. I did not ask. It was not accepted. My money.

When you found out that he helped Senator Duffy deal with his expenses, what did you think of that?

Well, look that's, I don't know what went on in that discussion, you know, we know that the job of a principal secretary or a Chief of Staff is, it's to try and protect the Prime Minister that he serves and works for. I never had that conversation —

Protect him from what on that?

Well from just, you know, that's your job to solve problems right and I don't know what was in either one of their heads, Mike Duffy, I don't know. That's for them to discuss. I know my situation, I know how I feel about my own responsibility for mistakes that I may have made, that I'm responsible for, that's me. That’s on me.

When you see your name associated with the other three senators who are in situations right now in terms of money: Duffy, Harb, Brazeau, do you see yourself as one of the four or do you see yourself very separate from their situations?

Well, it's a very different situation. Theirs was, the three of those gentleman all had, it was a very specific issue. It was about living and you know the nation's capital. It’s these —

The residency issue

The residency issue, the convoluted issues of when you have a residence in the nation's capital and somewhere else. That wasn't my case. This was about travel expenditures that were inappropriately, you know, delegated, like it’s just a different case. So yes, our names are always in the headlines together, but they’re very separate issues, and I think that you can see the process is dealing with them in a separate way.

Do you talk to them? You've been seen talking with Senator Duffy on the floor of the Senate.

Well, we have been moved to an area, you know, you sit —

The little independents area.

The little independent area, although, you know, some independents sit down at the other end too, but of course.

But do you talk about the situations you're in.

Not very much. No. In the first place, when you're in there you're supposed to be paying attention to what goes on. But I have Liberal senators who sit in front of me and I talk to them too. And it is, you know, I think people are very concerned about the situation for themselves, what it means for them if the Auditor General comes in and the scrutiny that will follow. I think they respond to, I had a Liberal senator come over yesterday and she put her hands on my shoulder and she said, you know, "You're one tough cookie. I don't know if I would have been able to sit in here." But my view of that is, it's my job. So, you know, but there's an understanding I think from people who are in there, they may not be going through it personally in terms of the scrutiny and the reports running around, but I think there's an empathy and an understanding that everybody has for somebody in this situation. So, I feel that for, for my situation, I feel it for others and I feel it for all of my colleagues as parliamentarians regardless of party.

One of your colleagues, I saw her on the television in the last couple of weeks, talking to reporters outside the Senate on the street, she was distraught, very upset, she was almost in tears if she wasn't in tears, feeling that a small group of senators, you included, have disgraced the Senate. And now they were all suffering from the same brush that was being painted of you and Duffy and Brazeau and Harb. What does that say to you? Is that something that should be happening that the Senate should be in disgrace because of the actions of a few? Or do you represent, in fact, a lot of what's going on inside the Senate. You know that a lot of people are watching this interview and saying fine, that's Pam Wallin's story, but they're all like that. They're all taking advantage; they're all bilking the system.

Well I don't think I'm taking advantage or bilking the system. I am very, very disciplined about whatever charges are made back to the Senate. As I said, I don't take people out to dinner and charge it to the Senate. I don't charge my per diems in many, many cases if I'm sitting on airplanes. You know there are just things I don't do because it just doesn't make sense.

When people see that you're having to pay back tens of thousands of dollars, you have to understand that they feel —

I understand, but —

  — that's their feeling?

I'm trying to explain that's why part of the reasons that motivates me here is, and everybody who's ever filled in an expense claim in their office knows how frustrating it is, how difficult it is and it sort of piles up and you'll get to that cause it's not a priority issue. I clearly made mistakes.

But do you think you're now a scapegoat for the way people feel about the Senate?

Well. I mean, people have a lot of different views about the Senate. Abolish and reform, and leave it the way it is, and have people pick who should be in the Senate, and have straw polls. I think it’s a good debate that's going to result from this. I think people will actually get focused on what it is that this place does. One of the things even as a reporter in my earlier life, we kind of didn't really know what the Senate did. The House of Commons was the action and they passed the legislation and then it went over to the Red Chamber and they just, you know, rubber-stamped it and away it went. Well, actually things have started to change in there and it is becoming a little bit of a different place. A lot of the people who were appointed around the same time that I was I think are more activist in their mind. This whole notion of term limits is really important to me. I don't think you should go there and plan to stay for life, or ‘till age 75, which is what the rule is. I think you should go and make your contribution. You can be at the front end of the career, the tail end of the career, mid career. Go and take what you have learned in the real world, put it to work there, figure out how that system works and take that back out because you're kind of an ambassador both ways. So, you know, if there's a silver lining in all of this mess, I think that it might be that, that we'll really engage on this. I think that the Auditor General going in is probably a good idea. Then I think that will give a lot of people comfort about what's going on in there. He's a person who actually is paid to understand how the system works.

It's pretty hard for people to see a silver lining right now.

It’s hard for me to see one too. But I think that if we, if some good comes out of this, then it won't be for me. Obviously, I'm not going to try to pretend this has been a good experience, it has not, but that's the only way I can look at it at this point. That if I can make sure that the rules are a little clearer and a little fairer and little more open for people to see. If there's less subjectivity in it, then maybe that will benefit the next person that goes in. I was a real believer in term limits. We can't even find a way to get that on the table, you know. So maybe this will be a way to take these issues forward. It’s just, you know, it's not been a pleasant experience.

Just two more points. One of them I want to try again with you because I asked it to you earlier. And it's this issue of the relationship with the Prime Minister and whether or not you feel you let him down, or whether he let you down after the strong defence of you.

You know I guess just don't see the issue in those terms. These are my mistakes. I take ownership of them. I don't think I deliberately set out to use the system or abuse the system. I don't think that I was there for my own personal financial gain or to aggrandize myself in some way. I mean I actually brought my public profile to the table. I didn't hope to get it at the Senate. So I don't know, I’m sure he feels let down. I don't know. I haven’t had that conversation with him and I’m obviously very concerned about the process and what happens to you if you end up in the spotlight on this. When you've become the object, right. I just, I don't think it’s the best way to go about trying to fix something. You'd have to ask him if he’s disappointed. I think you can tell from the look on his face. I'm disappointed in the system and I'm trying to do the right thing. I was trying to do the right thing, I was concentrating and focusing on being a different kind of senator. I think that's important. I said this to you earlier, it's about mission. You don't want to get up in the morning, nobody does, you don't want to get up in the morning and go to work and think it doesn't matter. That you're just there to see if you can take a flight somewhere. You know, I took a lot of flights. It cost me a lot of time with friends and family and it cost me a lot of sleep and all of those things because I thought it was the right thing to do. That's why I was there. I was honoured to be put into the place. I was honoured to have the opportunity because of that to be an advocate for a lot of people who didn't have the voice, that was the key thing about my time in Afghanistan and my trips back. Those men and women that we asked to put their lives on the line quite literally, don't have a voice. And so it’s a place to do it. So I think it’s important. I don't think we can just dismiss all of this and say, "Ah  it's a place filled with a bunch of folks that are just trying to rip off the system". I don't see it that way. It’s not who I am and it's not who a lot of my colleagues are.

The flights that were deemed inappropriate, not only by the Senate but eventually by you.

Well, by me —

Were these, like personal —

Yeah — because I'm the one that went and looked at this, they're business related ….

 — but that was after the issue was raised. Right?

Right. I went back and looked at it and the ones that were the responsibility that should have been paid by a third party, those are the ones that I just took on right away. Those repayments I made instantly because it was clear they were mistakes.

Third party meaning you were at a speech? Or —

No, more like a board or some other event where it was just a mistake, it was just literally, you know,  not a good one but an honest one, you know, people just, you know I don't think any one person could have dealt with the level of paperwork that was there. But, it’s not as I said, the money didn't come to me. It went to an airline and so we've tried to reconcile that. It goes on all the time in this process. You know, they overpay, the underpay, I overpay, I underpay, that process goes on all of the time as you reconcile things. But these were things that stood out. But there are some as I've said, some principles there that matter that we need to sort out. And getting to your home, to represent that province and to be in that province and to do things, you probably shouldn't be penalized if you take a route, you know, if you're stopping to do other senate work on the way home.

Last point. We've known each other a long time, we've been in journalism together right back to Saskatchewan—

 — Saskatchewan — we won't even say what year that election was.

One of the ways you made your name was in interviews. Tough questions. And nobody will forget the question you asked John Turner about whether or not he had a drinking problem.

I didn't ask it very well, but anyway.

But everybody understood what you were asking, including him. So here's the Pam Wallin question to Pam Wallin. Because it's the same kind of thing, people talk, people have a feeling about you, and they, some have come to a conclusion that you have an entitlement problem. That you just think things are owed you.

I think that that is against every single thing that I stand for, that I believe in. It goes against the way that I have conducted my professional life. Whether it was journalism or business or diplomacy or the Senate. I do not have some sense of entitlement to, in this, I want to do something that matters. When Prime Minister Chretien phoned me and said would you go to New York City after 9/11, I was running a pretty successful television business at that point. I had just come out of cancer surgery. There was a whole lot of things going on in my life that would have argued against going. But I was drawn to that. The relationship between these two countries was really on the line. We had lost Canadians, Americans, 26 countries had suffered from this. It just pulled me. I was drawn to that. It was the same feeling I had when Prime Minister Harper asked me about the Afghanistan panel. To go there, to feel it on the ground. I felt the same way when he called me about the senate. This is a chance to do something that matters. It's not about the money. It's not about feeling that I'm entitled to do this. It’s about having a purpose and you get a lot of reinforcement for that when you're in the journalism business. You feel that you're changing lives and you're giving people information so that they can make wise decisions about their life and that's a very meaningful career. I loved every minute of being in the journalism world. Until I discovered this. That there was a way you could really impact peoples' lives, you could change peoples' lives, you could make a difference. So given the opportunity to do that, I consider myself lucky to have been asked to go to New York, to have gone to Afghanistan. It's not that these things are without some risk, but so is journalism it’s got, you know. But it's something that matters. I feel like I've made a difference.

So how hard has it been then to accept the fact that many people out there that are watching tonight feel that you and your colleagues have in fact been acting like you are entitled, to take advantage of the system.

I just don't see it. And it’s one of the reasons why I’m trying to explain this. I think anybody understands that when you are dealing with mounds of paper you're going to make some mistakes. I am sorry for doing that. I wish I'd paid better attention, I really do. Because I wouldn't be distracted from what I’m trying to accomplish. We wouldn't be having this kind of conversation that is focused on that instead of the issues that actually really matter to people and to me. I grew up in a legion household. It is part of my DNA to care about the men and women who fight for us, and not just when they’re at war, but every single day. I want to be able to do that. I was chair of the defence committee. I think I was actually making a difference. I didn't deliberately set out to abuse this system in any way. In fact I thought I was being pretty rigorous but I actually wasn't being rigorous enough. And that's on me and I am going to try and make that right if I can and I’ve done the best I can so far to try and do that and I am waiting for this final report when and if it comes and then I’ll try to make, I'll try to make that right too.

And on that we'll leave it.

Ok. Thank you.

Thank you.