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
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.
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.