‘Slush fund’ days are over

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - FRONT PAGE - Rus­sell Wanger­sky Rus­sell Wanger­sky is TC Me­dia’s At­lantic re­gional colum­nist. He can be reached at rus­sell.wanger­sky@tc.tc — Twit­ter: @Wanger­sky.

Rus­sell Wanger­sky says if we needed an­other ob­ject les­son about the ethics of leg­is­la­tors and unau­dited funds, look no fur­ther than P.E.I.’s back­bench bud­gets.

As if we needed an­other ob­ject les­son about the ethics of leg­is­la­tors and un­fet­tered, unau­dited funds…

Last week, The Guardian be­gan run­ning a se­ries of pieces on what was quickly la­belled a slush fund: an op­er­at­ing grant given to govern­ment and op­po­si­tion back­benchers that let the back­benchers have ac­cess to a cou­ple of hun­dred dol­lars or so a month to do things like buy tick­ets to com­mu­nity din­ners or fundrais­ers.

It also al­lowed, ap­par­ently, a for­mer op­po­si­tion chief of staff to be paid with over $18,000 of tax­pay­ers’ money long af­ter he left his job.

Over­all, the trans­gres­sions out­lined so far have not in­volved huge amounts of money, and that’s re­sulted in a lit­tle push­back against the news­pa­per for even look­ing at the funds.

What the spend­ing has in­volved, though, is yet an­other ex­am­ple of the prob­lems of leg­is­la­tors vot­ing them­selves hid­den cash.

The spend­ing is ex­empt from P.E.I.’s free­dom of in­for­ma­tion leg­is­la­tion, and few politi­cians have been will­ing to say much about how it’s used and what, if any, rules ap­ply. Sound fa­mil­iar? Well, if you’ve been pay­ing at­ten­tion to leg­isla­tive news in the At­lantic provinces over the past few years, it should. New­found­land and Labrador read­ers will cer­tainly re­mem­ber the con­stituency al­lowance scan­dal, where tax­pay­ers’ money was divvied up through a govern­ment com­mit­tee and used by mem­bers of the House of As­sem­bly in much the same way. It was also ex­empted from New­found­land’s ac­cess leg­is­la­tion, as well as be­ing ex­empt from be­ing au­dited by the prov­ince’s au­di­tor gen­eral.

By the time the whole scan­dal had blown up, crim­i­nal charges ended up be­ing laid. The scan­dal led to new leg­is­la­tion and a pro­vin­cial in­quiry to en­sure politi­cians couldn’t dip into pub­lic funds to help grease con­stituents’ causes in the leg­is­la­tors’ own dis­tricts.

In Nova Sco­tia, 2010-11 brought a sim­i­lar MLA ex­pense scan­dal, where four mem­bers or for­mer mem­bers of the Leg­isla­tive As­sem­bly were con­victed for their ex­pense ac­count fid­dling. There, the prov­ince’s au­di­tor gen­eral, watch­ing the un­fold­ing scan­dal in New­found­land, took it upon him­self to ex­am­ine sim­i­lar claims in Nova Sco­tia.

“I thought if I asked, I’d be re­fused,” au­di­tor gen­eral Jac­ques La­pointe said in a CBC story. “So I just in­formed them I was do­ing it.”

He flagged a se­ries of ex­penses — from the pur­chase of bigscreen tele­vi­sions to the di­ver­sion of funds, and the Moun­ties came call­ing. Here’s La­pointe again, talk­ing about the in­ter­nal govern­ment com­mit­tee that re­viewed con­stituency ex­penses in Nova Sco­tia: “They were ac­tu­ally fos­ter­ing im­proper spend­ing.… They were en­abling it, pro­mot­ing it. And they tempted peo­ple to get things. They cre­ated a cul­ture.”

There have been ex­pense scan­dals in Al­berta and Saskatchewan, and the list goes on — the Se­nate is still deal­ing with how its au­gust mem­bers have dipped their way into even more funds than the spec­tac­u­lar re­turns they le­git­i­mately re­ceive.

Leg­is­la­tors like to claim that they shouldn’t be sub­ject to au­dits. They claim that hav­ing to jus­tify their spend­ing to an au­di­tor who, in the end, re­ports to the leg­is­la­ture means the par­lia­men­tar­i­ans’ priv­i­leges have been breached.

That’s all well and good — un­til peo­ple started mak­ing slush funds for them­selves. If you spend govern­ment money, you should have to ac­count for ev­ery dime. Do­ing oth­er­wise, as has be­come ob­vi­ous al­most ev­ery­where, only en­cour­ages more sleight of hand.

The slush fund days are over, no mat­ter how small the mon­e­tary amounts are.


Olive Crane, for­mer leader of the Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive Party of P.E.I., is flanked by MLAs James Ayl­ward, left, and Hal Perry, as she an­nounces her res­ig­na­tion as leader.

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