03 May 2012

Some NL cabinet ministers bill taxpayers for work commuting #nlpoli

Almost half the money (46%) spent on ministerial travel by the municipal affairs department between December 2010 and November 2011 went to cover travel by minister Kevin O’Brien from his home in Gander  to St. John’s for cabinet meetings and other government business.

O’Brien billed taxpayers for about $77,188 in travel and related expenses during the period.  About $36,000 of it was for travel between Gander and St. John’s.

The information is taken from expense reports posted by the provincial government on the government website.  CBC reported on Kevin O’Brien’s travel expenses on May 1 and 2 as a result of hearings by the House of Assembly estimates committee reviewing the 2012 budget. 

The CBC story erroneously labels the travel as being to O’Brien’s district  - it was from the district – and attributes the amount to Air Canada airfares. There’s more to it than that.

Provincial government  expense rules for cabinet ministers allow them to live outside the capital region and bill travel, accommodation and meal costs to the department when they have to travel to St. John’s for official business. The definition of “permanent residence” used in the cabinet policy is tied to the declaration ministers make to the House of Assembly to determine their allowances and entitlements under House of Assembly spending rules.

O’Brien isn’t alone in the billing practice.  For example, finance minister Tom Marshall’s commuting travel accounted for 67% of his departmental travel claims in the period.  Marshall billed taxpayers $23,400 in the period SRBP looked at for travel between his home in Corner Brook and his department’s head office in St. John’s.  Marshall’s total ministerial travel was $35,025.

Cabinet minister Joan Burke billed taxpayers more than $15,433 for commuting from December 2010 to November 2011. The total of her expenses listed on the provincial government website was $30,307.  That puts her commuting costs at 51% of her total ministerial expense bill. 

During his last year in politics, Labrador affairs minister John Hickey hit taxpayers for more than $27,682 for travel from his Goose Bay home to St. John’s for cabinet meetings and other government business.   Hickey’s bills that year included his share of two aircraft charters to bring him to St. John’s as well as two bills for long-term airport parking passes. His expenses total on the government website was $47,769.  That would make his commuting travel 58% of his ministerial travel costs

Aboriginal affairs minister Patty Pottle, billed the most of all for the home-to-work travel, though.  In her last year in office, Pottle billed taxpayers more than $40,400 for travel, meals and accommodations as she traveled from her home in Nain to St. John’s.  That represents 63% of the $64,300 in expenses listed for Pottle on the government website.

Pottle claimed a total of almost $35,000 in one six month period.Her travel to St. John’s on official business accounted for slightly more than $24,000 for the same six months.

Some ministers also claim car expenses under the ministerial expense rules.  They can either claim mileage or claim a car allowance plus operating costs incurred on government business.

The cabinet expense policy on the car allowance states:

The automobile allowance is $8,000 per year, prorated for the portion of the fiscal year for which the Minister serves in Cabinet (based on MC 90-1135).

Ministers will be reimbursed fuel expenses, consumable liquids and related expenses incurred while traveling on government business. Detailed original receipts indicating proof of payment must be provided.
Ministers receive the automobile allowance as a bi-weekly payment that coincides with the usual pay cycle.

The automobile allowance, fuel expenses, consumable liquids and related expenses will be issued on payroll cheques rather than General Account Cheques and is taxable in accordance with Canada Revenue Agency requirements.

In addition to his other commuting, Kevin O’Brien received more than $6,000 under the car allowance and operating expense policy between June and November 2011 alone. 

SRBP first noted the practice of commuting ministers in July and December 2008.  

From December 2010 to November 2011, O’Brien filed 36 expense claims for travel, meals and accommodations for travel between Gander and St. John’s.  The smallest claim was $231. The largest was $2,069.  Some of the claims may have related to the same travel.

O’Brien’s travel claims suggest his commuting was quite frequent at times.  His expense records for claims paid in December 2010 show claims for travel in October and November, 2010.  SRBP did not include them in the totals above since the travel took place outside the study period.

In those two months, O’Brien filed commuting claims for travel on October 13, 17, 29 and 31 and November 4, 14, 21 and 28. The total cost of those claims was approximately $9,952.

O’Brien also claimed for other ministerial travel besides the commuting.  For example, during the period examined for this post, he expensed travel, entertainment and related expenses totalling $985 for the presentation of a fire truck to the Town of Hampden in White Bay.

- srbp -