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'Aura of power:' Alberta auditor says Redford used public money inappropriately

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Alison Redford is pictured in Edmonton on May 5, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dean Bennett

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Alison Redford is pictured in Edmonton on May 5, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dean Bennett

EDMONTON - Alberta's auditor general says former premier Alison Redford and her staff used the power of the province's top political office to break expense rules and inappropriately use taxpayer money, in some cases for personal gain.

In a biting report that the Alberta government has forwarded to the RCMP, Merwan Saher found that Redford's office consistently failed to demonstrate that travel expenses were necessary and a reasonable and appropriate use of public funds.

He took particular issue with the way Redford used the province's fleet of planes to ferry her, and in many cases her daughter, to events that included Progressive Conservative party fundraisers and personal trips.

"Overall, the expense practices and use of public assets by premier Redford and her office have fallen short of publicly stated goals," Saher wrote in his review of Redford's travel expenses released Thursday.

"How could this happen? The answer is the aura of power around premier Redford and her office and the perception that the influence of the office should not be questioned."

He laid the blame squarely on Redford and her staff. He said other government departments were "wary of challenging decisions" or felt "trapped," and often worked around or ignored rules so the premier wouldn't be personally linked to those decisions.

"After all, the premier is the premier," Saher said.

Redford resigned from the top job in March as a caucus revolt brewed over her leadership style and lavish spending. A vote for a new party leader is scheduled for Sept. 6.

On Wednesday, she resigned her seat as a Calgary backbencher and in a letter acknowledged mistakes were made during her time in office. She said she would not be commenting further.

Saher outlined the various misdeeds in his report, including a practice of "block booking" government aircraft to give the appearance that planes were full "so that other passengers could not ride on the same flight" with the premier and her staff. People decrying the scheme took to Twitter using the hashtag "FakesOnAPlane."

Saher said Redford and her former chief of staff denied any knowledge of the practice, but that it's clear the idea came from her office.

Redford also used government planes to attend Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta functions, the auditor said, sometimes scheduling government related activities for the same times.

On two occasions, she used the planes for trips that Saher found were more personal than business-related — a family funeral in Vancouver and a weekend in Jasper. Her daughter travelled on both occasions, as well as on 48 other flights, a few times with friends and a couple of times without her mother.

"We conclude that premier Redford obtained a personal benefit by having her daughter accompany her on government aircraft," Saher wrote. "Spending that provides or appears to provide a personal benefit is a risk that government needs to manage."

Saher also delved into the premier's trade mission to India and Switzerland earlier this year that the government previously said cost $131,000. Adding other fees, such as advance planning, security and travel for other staff, Saher found the trip actually cost $450,000.

He further found that Redford was involved in a now-cancelled plan to add a premier's suite to a government building under renovation near the legislature, a residence dubbed in the media as "sky palace" when it was revealed earlier this year.

Justice Minister Jonathan Denis said he has arranged for prosecutors from Ontario to work with RCMP on a review of the former premier's expenses. He said the use of out-of-province lawyers is needed to ensure an independent investigation and remove any perception of a conflict.

The Opposition Wildrose called for the resignation of Finance Minister Doug Horner, whose department is responsible for provincial planes.

"Mr. Horner has completely and utterly failed to do his job, and the auditor general's report confirms as much," said Wildrose critic Kerry Towle. "On page 20, I quote: 'There was no formal oversight structure to monitor the office's travel expenses and the use of government aircraft.'

"If Mr. Horner was not protecting taxpayers, who was? Clearly no one."

Horner said the ministers of each department are ultimately responsible for their travel expenses and plane trips. But when asked by a reporter how he felt not knowing about the misuse of planes under his watch, he sighed and simply said, "bad."

Saher's six recommendations include that the Treasury Board monitor the premier's expenses and the use of official aircraft. He also suggests the government clarify its planes policy to ensure they are not used for partisan purposes and to make sure flights are cost effective.

Redford's interim replacement, Premier Dave Hancock, said the government accepts all of the recommendations and "will take immediate action to implement them fully."

The PC party said it will reimburse the government $6,500 for three flights Saher found Redford took solely for party purposes.

Party president Jim McCormick said he wasn't aware of the misuse of the planes and "the responsibility for these choices falls directly on our former leader."

The NDP demanded a public inquiry.

New Democrat Deron Bilous said Hancock, Horner and Denis have all said a flight to Grande Prairie carrying the premier and several members of cabinet was for government business. The auditor general said he could not identify any government business in the city, only a leader's dinner.

"All cabinet ministers are implicated and there is a unified effort to cover it up," said Bilous. "This further justifies a full public inquiry into this issue."

Redford has been under fire for her travel expenses for months.

It began with revelations earlier this year about a $45,000 trip to South Africa for Nelson Mandela's funeral. Nova Scotia's premier billed taxpayers less than $1,000 for the same trip by travelling on the federal government's plane.

After weeks of criticism, Redford paid the money back.

But complaints over her travel expenses persisted when she admitted flying her daughter and the girl's friends around on government planes. She admitted the trips didn't follow the rules and repaid about $3,100. She then put a stop to all out-of-province trips on government aircraft and asked the auditor general to conduct his review.

Redford said in her resignation letter that she doesn't plan to stay in politics.

Trained as a lawyer, she said she plans to teach and resume work in international development and public policy.

"I will leave it to others to analyze and comment on the past. I am sure that I will be asked to weigh in, but I will respectfully decline," she wrote in her resignation letter released a day before the report was release. "It is time to move forward."

— With files from Bill Graveland in Calgary.

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