28 December 2008

Freedom From Information: The Big Commute

Government services minister Kevin O’Brien billed taxpayers almost $20,000 for 16 trips to St. John’s for “ministerial duties” between June and November 2008, according to information on ministerial expenses released by the provincial government before Christmas. One of the expenses in that total was for more than $3900 in advance bookings for “upcoming flights” to Gander from St. John’s. O’Brien’s total expense claimed for the period covered by the government report was $33,438.99.

Some of O’Brien’s claims were days apart. He billed the taxpayers $1,068.41 for travel, meals and accommodations for the period 11 – 15 June 2008 and another $1,246.62 for the period between June 16 and 20.

He billed another $729.50 for the period 24-26 June.

O’Brien claimed $1,162.04 on July 14, another $1,041.69 on July 16 and a further $743.95 on July 20. Of those amounts, $1,935.12 was for travel.

All the claims conform to the government’s ministerial expense claims policy.

Between June and November, aboriginal affairs minister Patty Pottle billed taxpayers over $13,000 for what government reports identify as attending cabinet meetings, departmental business and cabinet committee meetings. Not all the claims include travel. Her claims for the period totalled over $36,000.

In addition, four other cabinet ministers submitted claims for “departmental meetings” or “departmental business” in St. John’s, the provincial capital where the headquarters for each department is located.

As well, two ministers submitted monthly claims for “private accommodations” for each month from June to September. The smallest such claim was slightly over $1,000. The largest was more than $1,800.

Last summer, Bond Papers raised the question of cabinet ministers who spend significant chunks of the year living some place other than St. John’s.

Some ministers, such as Joan Burke, appear to maintain permanent residences outside St. John’s and commute to the capital on business. Burke submitted six claims between June and August 2008 labelled as “Travel to St. John’s for Ministerial Business.”

Justice minister Tom Marshall, who represents a district on the island’s west coast submitted eight claims in the reporting period during his time as finance minister. Of the eight claims, seven were for “Departmental Business-Headquarters” and included charges for travel, accommodations and meals and incidentals.

Under the ministerial expense rules, ministers with permanent residences outside the capital region can claim either temporary accommodations or private accommodations for time spent in the capital city.

In the period covered by the recent government disclosure, some of these ministers claimed very little other than travel to St. John’s and automobile charges.

Others, such as business minister Paul Oram, travelled widely outside the province on official business including a trip to the Farnborough air show and a business prospecting trip to Washington, D.C. and Atlanta Georgia. He also claimed expenses for what are described as “business meetings” with no details provided. One such claim, on September 9, 2008 came to over $1,000 for meals and incidentals with no other associated charges.

Only an access to information request could garner enough detail to get a full picture of ministerial expense claims practices. What government has released voluntarily only raises questions.



Number of claims




Joan Burke Education



Departmental business in St. John’s

10 claims all of which appear to be commuting/transportation-related.

John Hickey Labrador Affairs


May - Oct

Departmental business in St. John’s

Clyde Jackman Tourism, Culture Recreation



Private Accommodations

Monthly claims ranging from $1,071 to $1,717 for accommodations in St. John’s. This does not include costs for travel by car.

Tom Marshall Finance


Jun - Oct

Departmental business in St. John’s

Out of 8 claims during period, 7 were for travel to St. John’s.

Kevin O’Brien Government Services


Jun - Oct

Departmental business in St. John’s

Total claims during period: $33K. Total on commuting travel: including $3911 in block booking (in advance) of undisclosed number of flights between Gander and St. John’s.

Paul Oram Business




Four amounts ranging between $1436 and $1835 for “private accommodation” in St. John’s on monthly basis.

Patty Pottle
Aboriginal Affairs



Departmental business in St. John’s

Ross Wiseman Health and Community Services


May - Sept

Departmental business in St. John’s