August 21st, 2019

With questionable integrity, some politicians still stretch expense rules

By Medicine Hat News Opinon on August 18, 2017.

If there was one message Albertans thought had penetrated the walls of political power in the last five years then it would have been the stench of “political entitlement.”

Evidently not. We still have elected officials who stretch the rules for expense compensation.

What makes MLA Derek Fildebrandt’s expense claims so shocking is that he was always the watchdog blasting away at the “entitled” politicians in his position with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF).

In 2014 when former premier Allison Redford’s staff charged taxpayers more than $200 a night for a posh Edmonton hotel, Fildebrandt — Alberta director CTF at the time — said Redford was leading by example but in the wrong direction, particularly in regard to travel and accommodation.

That same year, after the Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin’s Senate expense scandal, Fildebrandt had this to say:

“I think all MPs are on a much higher guard after the Senate scandal and they’ve had an earful from constituents.”

When former MP LaVar Payne’s travel expenses on his website did not show actual receipts, Fildebrandt called that a “cop-out.”

“We need the details. We don’t trust politicians,” said Fildebrandt.

Clearly we are no closer to being able to trust politicians, even the ones we thought really cared about taxpayers.

Brian Jean, a leadership candidate for the United Conservative Party, was asked about the Fildebrandt revelations and what should be done in future to ensure we can trust politicians. Jean suggested appropriate “vetting” of candidates and choosing people of “integrity” was the key.

If that is all it takes clearly our interpretation of “integrity” is very different from that of political parties or they have just been ignoring that aspect before now.

On Wednesday the CTF called for a review of expense rules for MLAs. It is roughly four years since a major review of MLA expenses and parameters were put in place to address this. In March 2013 the News reported on a loophole that allowed MLAs to charge for hotel accommodation and a second residence with some MLAs claiming up to $3,800 a month.

“This was so generous many MLAs were able to pay off a mortgage on a condominium in three terms of office,” said Fildebrandt in that story.

MLAs decided unanimously to cap their capital housing allowance at $1,930 per month from September 2013 to bring an end to double-dipping that was brought to their attention by the auditor general five years before. It was also decided at that point that MLAs could claim $48.90 per diem to cover the cost of meals and incidentals while in Edmonton.

Without naming every potential scam, the government’s travel, meal and hospitality expense policy stated: … “taxpayers’ dollars are to be used prudently and responsibly with a focus on accountability and transparency … expenses must be necessary and economical … able to withstand scrutiny by the Auditor General of Alberta and members of the public.”

Fildebrandt may feel the roughly $2,000 he made through Airbnb while claiming a housing allowance for his condominium was insignificant and did not clearly violate the rules.

To someone getting his salary (basic remuneration of $127,296 with many MLAs getting more than $200,000) it is a small amount. That is not how someone struggling on an income of $30,000 a year would see it though.

Fildebrandt is probably not the only MLA guilty of inappropriate expenses. The rest just have not been exposed yet. They would all do well to consider whether they could look a constituent, struggling on $30,000 a year, in the eye and explain why they feel justified in claiming the expenses they do.

(Gillian Slade is a News reporter. To comment on this and other editorials, go to https://www.medicinehatnews.com/opinions or call her at 403-528-8635.)

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