Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Financial fallout of ousting trio being worked out

Will time in purgatory count toward pension?

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OTTAWA -- The Conservative government is scrambling to figure out if the suspensions of three of its own senators means they're entirely off the public payroll, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper claims.

Tuesday's suspensions of Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau for allegedly fraudulent expense claims are without precedent and the government hasn't figured out all the ramifications.

Among the lingering questions: Is Duffy eligible for a disability allowance? Will the trio's time in political purgatory -- as much as two years -- count toward the six years of service needed to be eligible for a generous parliamentary pension?

It's up to the Senate to answer the questions, said Treasury Board President Tony Clement.

"You're asking very legitimate questions and there should be answers to those questions," Clement said Wednesday, stressing the Senate runs its own internal affairs. "I know that there's a legal opinion that is being sought."

Claude Carignan, government leader in the Senate, called the questions "technicalities" that will be sorted out by the chamber's administration.

The intention of the suspension motions was to suspend Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau "without pay, without any benefits... including (the) pension plan," he said.

While Senate officials will apply "the spirit and the letter" of those motions, he allowed that there might be some legal impediments.

"It could have perhaps little technical problems so we will see what the administration (does), if they have technical problems," Carignan said.

"But all that we can do to suspend the benefits and the salary, within the parameters of the law, we will do it."

The three are still entitled to health, dental and life insurance benefits -- a provision added by Carignan last week to make the suspensions more palatable to some of his Tory colleagues.

Tory Sen. Don Meredith, who abstained from Tuesday's vote, said he hopes the suspensions will not adversely affect his three former colleagues' pension eligibility.

"I think we need to begin to support our colleagues as they're on suspension, especially their economic and social state, especially Sen. Brazeau," Meredith said, pointing out Brazeau has young children, including one with a disability.

Liberal Senate leader James Cowan said the confusion is further evidence the government rushed to solve a political problem, without giving any thought to the possible consequences.

"It says that they've been making this whole process up as they go along."

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, however -- an outspoken champion of abolishing the Senate -- said he "couldn't care less" about the pension and disability allowance questions.

"You're asking me to comment on the flowers in the tapestry when we want to roll up the red carpet," he shrugged.

Another question lingers: How will the Senate collect reimbursement from Brazeau for $48,000 in disallowed living expenses if he's no longer collecting a salary?

Brazeau has insisted he did nothing wrong and has refused to repay the money. In July, the chamber began garnisheeing 20 per cent of his paycheque. Now, it's unclear how the Senate will get any more money out of him.

Wallin has repaid almost $150,000 in disallowed travel expenses.

Duffy's $90,000 in ineligible living expenses were repaid last winter by Nigel Wright, Harper's chief of staff at the time.

The three are not allowed to sit in the Senate, keep their offices, employ staff or conduct any Senate work.

Their suspensions are for the duration of the sitting, which could continue until 2015 -- the same year in which Wallin, Duffy and Brazeau, all appointed in early 2009, would ordinarily have become eligible for a pension.

Gregory Thomas of the Canadian Taxpayers' Association said "there's nothing in the legislation" to suggest the suspensions will affect the trio's pension eligibility, provided they continue to make contributions.

Duffy, 67, would be eligible in 2015 for an annual pension of $58,264, according to the federation.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 7, 2013 A10

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