Big money for noth­ing

Guardian in­ves­ti­ga­tion re­veals more than $18,000 of tax­pay­ers’ money paid to a for­mer Op­po­si­tion chief of staff months af­ter he was laid off

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - FRONT PAGE - BY TERESA WRIGHT

Twelve days be­fore Olive Crane stepped down as the leader of P.E.I.’s of­fi­cial Op­po­si­tion in Jan­uary 2013, the Op­po­si­tion of­fice is­sued six cheques to its chief of staff worth a to­tal of $18,463.

The cheques came from a so-called ‘slush fund’ – an op­er­at­ing grant given to the Op­po­si­tion and govern­ment back­benchers’ of­fices to help run their daily affairs.

As the de­part­ing chief of staff of the Op­po­si­tion of­fice, Kent Avery was en­ti­tled to four months of sev­er­ance pay from the leg­isla­tive as­sem­bly of P.E.I.

But, thanks to a con­tract signed by Olive Crane and then-Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive MLA Hal Perry, when Avery’s sev­er­ance ran out, that’s when the cheques kicked in.

Ac­cord­ing to posts on his Face­book page, Avery spent the seven months af­ter he left the Op­po­si­tion of­fice trav­el­ling and spend­ing time with fam­ily.

But, a Guardian in­ves­ti­ga­tion has learned that from June to the end of Au­gust 2013, tax­pay­ers paid Avery with those six cheques a to­tal of $18,463.50 even though he left the em­ploy­ment of the Op­po­si­tion of­fice months ear­lier.

The Guardian con­ducted in­ter­views with nu­mer­ous in­di­vid­u­als who did not want to be iden­ti­fied, but who of­fered de­tails of the events lead­ing up to this.

It was a tu­mul­tuous time in the prov­ince’s Op­po­si­tion of­fice.

Crane an­nounced she would re­sign as leader of the party in De­cem­ber 2012 af­ter both she and the party con­tin­ued to flat­line in the polls.

Perry be­came Op­po­si­tion leader af­ter Crane va­cated the post on Jan. 30, 2013 for a brief, con­fus­ing time, when Ge­orge­town-St. Pe­ters MLA Steven My­ers was, at the same time, in­terim leader of the party.

Even­tu­ally Perry stepped down as Op­po­si­tion leader, leav­ing My­ers in charge.

But the Op­po­si­tion of­fice was out of money and no one knew why. My­ers and his staff be­gan an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the books, and in late Au­gust 2013, dis­cov­ered the six cheques, each in the amount of $3,077.25, that had been is­sued on Jan. 18, 2013 to Kent Avery from the Op­po­si­tion of­fice’s op­er­at­ing grant. Less than two weeks later, he was laid off.

The pay pe­ri­ods for each of the cheques ranged from June 2 to Aug. 24, 2013.

This was con­fus­ing be­cause Avery had not been work­ing in the Op­po­si­tion of­fice since Jan­uary. Also con­fus­ing was why he was paid from the of­fice’s op­er­at­ing grant.

While em­ployed as chief of staff, Avery was clas­si­fied as an ex­cluded em­ployee. Ex­cluded em­ploy­ees of any of­fice of the leg­isla­tive as­sem­bly are paid from a sep­a­rate salary ac­count al­lot­ted to each of­fice. They are not nor­mally paid from the op­er­at­ing grant.

In a state­ment to The Guardian, Avery says he was an ex­cluded em­ployee but also had a con­tract with the Op­po­si­tion of­fice.

This con­tract, signed by Crane as party leader and wit­nessed by Perry as Op­po­si­tion house leader, pro­vided Avery with as­sur­ance of com­pen­sa­tion un­til the end of Au­gust 2013.

Af­ter his de­par­ture in Jan­uary, he re­ceived four months’ sev­er­ance from the leg­isla­tive as­sem­bly, which all clas­si­fied em­ploy­ees are en­ti­tled to if laid off. When that ran out, Avery had the six cheques from the Op­po­si­tion of­fice’s op­er­at­ing grant, which al­lowed him to con­tinue re­ceiv­ing pay from P.E.I. tax­pay­ers un­til he re­sumed his job as a teacher in Septem­ber 2013.

Mean­while, hon­our­ing this con­tract with Avery to­gether with a host of other un­ex­pected ex­penses in­curred un­der the pre­vi­ous lead­er­ship left the Op­po­si­tion of­fice’s op­er­at­ing grant vir­tu­ally empty with four months left in the cal­en­dar year and eight months be­fore the new fis­cal year.

My­ers reached out to for­mer premier Robert Ghiz, ask­ing for more money to al­low his of­fice to op­er­ate. Ghiz agreed.

As for why Crane signed a con­tract with Avery de­spite the fact he was al­ready an ex­cluded em­ployee is un­known. Also un­known is why all six cheques were is­sued to Avery in Jan­uary, months be­fore the pay pe­ri­ods of June to Au­gust.

De­tailed ques­tions sent to Crane via email were left unan­swered.

“As you know I left pol­i­tics last year and as a pri­vate per­son I no longer do in­ter­views,” Crane said in the only re­sponse of­fered to The Guardian for this story.

Crane did not re­of­fer in the pro­vin­cial elec­tion and is now work­ing in the Depart­ment of Work­force and Ad­vanced Learn­ing on a one-year con­tract.

My­ers would only com­ment briefly for this story, say­ing he did in­ves­ti­gate whether there was any le­gal re­course for his of­fice once he dis­cov­ered the pay­ments to Avery from the Op­po­si­tion of­fice’s op­er­at­ing grant.

But since there was a signed con­tract be­tween Crane, Perry and Avery, he says there was noth­ing he could do.

“Once we had de­ter­mined there was no le­gal re­course, I fig­ured there was no use drag­ging some­one into the mud over it,” My­ers said.

“We moved on.”

Cur­rent Op­po­si­tion Leader Jamie Fox says he was wholly un­aware of the whole trans­ac­tion un­til The Guardian re­quested com­ment for this story.

“My un­der­stand­ing is that there was a con­trac­tual ar­range­ment made be­tween the leader of the Op­po­si­tion, the (Op­po­si­tion) house leader and the chief of staff in 2013. The only peo­ple who knew about the ar­range­ment were the prin­ci­pals in­volved. The of­fice staff and cau­cus were not aware of this ar­range­ment un­til months af­ter the fact,” Fox said in a state­ment.

“This ar­range­ment was re­viewed and it was de­ter­mined that it was a poor man­age­ment de­ci­sion by the in­di­vid­u­als in­volved and no le­gal re­course is avail­able to pur­sue the mat­ter fur­ther.”

Money pro­vided to the cau­cus of­fices for their op­er­at­ing grant is part of the leg­isla­tive as­sem­bly of P.E.I. bud­get.

It is used for ex­penses by MLAs such as mileage, do­na­tions to char­i­ties or fundrais­ers, as well as of­fice sup­plies, equip­ment, cell­phone bills, ad­ver­tis­ing, host­ing and other of­fice ex­penses. It can be used for con­tracts, but nor­mally for short­term, ses­sional em­ploy­ees or spe­cial projects or con­sul­tants.

Charles MacKay, clerk of the leg­isla­tive as­sem­bly, told The Guardian an ac­count­ing of this money must be pre­sented to the prov­ince’s leg­isla­tive man­age­ment com­mit­tee an­nu­ally.

But this money is not au­dited. De­tails of spend­ing by Op­po­si­tion or govern­ment back­bench of­fices can­not be viewed by the pub­lic or ac­cessed through free­dom of in­for­ma­tion.

MacKay says he is not aware of the pay­ments to Avery and did not want to com­ment on per­son­nel mat­ters.

“We don’t scru­ti­nize what a con­tract would be worth with a dif­fer­ent in­di­vid­ual or in­di­vid­u­als that (the Op­po­si­tion or govern­ment mem­bers’ of­fice) may wish to con­tract ser­vices for. Those are in­de­pen­dent de­ci­sions made by those of­fices.”

Re­quests to Perry for com­ment for this story were not re­ceived by dead­line.

Perry crossed the floor to join the Lib­eral party in Oc­to­ber 2013 and re­cently served as education min­is­ter in Premier Wade MacLauch­lan’s cab­i­net be­fore be­ing abruptly shuf­fled out of the job ear­lier this week.

GUARDIAN FILE PHOTO

This Guardian file photo of Olive Crane and Hal Perry was taken Dec. 5, 2012, when she an­nounced she would re­sign as leader of the Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive Party. Be­fore she left, six cheques were is­sued to her chief of staff, Kent Avery, from the of­fice op­er­at­ing grant to be paid out af­ter he was laid off thanks to a con­tract signed by Crane, Perry and Avery.

Kent Avery

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