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The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Senate probe finds no issue with housing claims, avoids constitutional question

Posted: 02/28/2013 1:57 PM | Comments: 0

Last Modified: 02/28/2013 4:58 PM

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OTTAWA - An internal Senate investigation has failed to turn up any questionable housing allowance claims beyond those previously unearthed by journalists.

But a more fundamental question remains untested: Can a senator represent a province or territory in which they do not live?

The expenses of four senators are currently being examined by independent forensic auditors, an exercise that set in motion an internal search for any other problematic bookkeeping.

"As a result of this process no other senators were referred to external auditors," the standing committee on internal economy, budgets and administration said in a one-page report released Thursday.

The wider investigation was begun following media reports that three longtime Ottawa residents in the upper chamber were improperly claiming housing allowances. The allowances, currently worth $22,000 a year, are meant to compensate senators who keep a secondary residence in the national capital region.

Only senators whose "primary residence" is more than 100 kilometres from Ottawa are entitled to the housing subsidy.

All 98 sitting senators were asked for documentation by the committee, which reviewed their driver's licences, health cards and residency information on their income-tax returns. It also looked at their travel expense claims to see if they lined up with their residency claims.

Only two senators didn't fully check out from their documents, said the report. Sen. Rod Zimmer and Sen. Dennis Patterson were cleared after being called in for interviews to explain their living arrangements.

Sen. James Cowan, the Liberal Senate leader, called the internal investigation "a reasonable process, the right process."

Cowan had initially requested the review, along with Sen. Marjory LeBreton, the government leader in the Senate.

"It's exonerated so many of my colleagues and Sen. LeBreton and I, that's what we asked to be done," said Cowan. "We congratulate internal economy on having done that work."

LeBreton said the Senate itself has been going through an internal audit that's expected to be finished "very shortly."

"Out of that internal audit will be further issues that have to be addressed with regard to our rules and regulations which — obviously, from this exercise — need considerable work."

Charlie Angus, the NDP ethics critic, immediately slammed Thursday's report as a whitewash.

"There's clearly a huge problem in there but we have the senators circling the wagons protecting themselves," Angus said outside the House of Commons.

"We need real accountability. Nobody's going to fall for this kind of attempted rearguard action."

External auditors continue to look at the expenses of Conservative Sen. Mike Duffy, Liberal Mac Harb and Sen. Patrick Brazeau, who was turfed from the Conservative caucus this month on an unrelated criminal matter.

Auditors are also examining the travel expense claims of Conservative Sen. Pamela Wallin.

Duffy, appointed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in December 2008, has volunteered to repay his $22,000-a-year allowance. Wallin has not denied reports she has repaid a substantial chunk of her travel expenses, which total $321,000 since September 2010.

But beyond reimbursing ineligible expense claims, the controversy has raised more fundamental questions.

The Senate was originally conceived to represent Canada's regions and Senate appointees are supposed to live in the region they represent.

The Constitution requires that a senator "shall be resident in the province for which he is appointed," and must own at least $4,000 worth of property in that province or territory.

Duffy, who represents P.E.I., has lived in Ottawa since the 1970s and Wallin, who represents Saskatchewan, made a broadcast career in Toronto and Ottawa. Both were born in the provinces they represent and both own what appear to be recreational properties there.

The prime minister asserted in the House of Commons on Wednesday that "all senators conform to the residency requirements."

"That is the basis on which they are appointed to the Senate and those requirements have been clear for 150 years," said Harper.

Angus, the New Democrat, claimed the Conservative-dominated Senate inquiry simply rubber-stamped Harper's words, but the report actually made a point of avoiding the issue.

"It is neither in our mandate nor our jurisdiction to make any findings on the constitutional question of residency," said the Senate report.

The authors did note that "there has been some confusion on this matter."

They point out that the current Senate form for residency relates to the housing allowance, which dates back only to 1998.

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