The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

NDP's controversial satellite-office expenses offside, Commons committee rules

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OTTAWA - Almost two dozen New Democrat MPs have been ordered to reimburse taxpayers for untold millions in salaries paid to aides who worked in satellite party offices.

The multi-party board of internal economy, which polices House of Commons spending, concluded Tuesday that 23 NDP MPs improperly used their parliamentary budgets to pay the salaries of employees in satellite offices in Montreal, Quebec City and Toronto over the past three years.

Just how much the MPs will be ordered to repay remains to be seen. The board has asked the Commons administration to tally the sum and report back in September with options for recovering the money.

But Conservative whip John Duncan, spokesman for the board, said the tab will be "significant."

"The rules are clear and it is clear that once again the NDP has broken the rules," Duncan said after a closed-door meeting of the secretive board.

"It's fair to say it'll be a pretty significant number because there's things like salaries involved since the fall of 2011 for a significant number of employees."

Duncan said 28 former and current employees are deemed to have been improperly paid out of MPs' Commons budgets. Postings for some jobs in the satellite offices suggest full-time staffers were paid as much as $56,000 a year.

It's the second time in three months the board has ordered New Democrats to reimburse taxpayers for alleged improper use of parliamentary resources.

In June, the board said NDP MPs wrongly used $1.17 million worth of free mailing privileges to paper 26 ridings with almost 2 million partisan missives. It ordered the MPs to repay $36,000 to the Commons and urged Canada Post to recover the rest.

However, the NDP has launched a court challenge to overturn the board's verdict on the mailings and is likely to do so again on the satellite office issue.

NDP House leader Peter Julian said Tuesday the party will evaluate its options before deciding on its next step.

"No public funds were spent inappropriately and employees at our regional offices were doing exclusively parliamentary work," Julian said in a written statement.

As they did on the mailings, Julian said Conservatives and Liberals on the board have once again joined forces to retroactively change the rules and "overwhelm" the NDP with "an excessively large bill."

"Their goal is clear: they do not seek justice but are instead trying to weaken the New Democratic Party and prevent it from doing its work on behalf of Canadians."

While Julian insisted the arrangement was authorized by Commons administrative officials, Duncan alleged that New Democrats "have consistently disguised, misled the House administration as to where these employees were located."

Parliamentary bylaws allow MPs to employ staff in their Parliament Hill office or constituency office. Documents provided to the Commons procedure and House affairs committee, which reviewed the satellite office issue last spring, suggested Commons administrators had no idea the employees would be working out of a regional party office.

Moreover, the staffers' employment forms, signed by MPs, said they worked in Ottawa. And minutes of a meeting showed an NDP official specifically assured administrators the staffers worked on the Hill.

However, the NDP has produced emails to officials which show, in some cases at least, the party did not try to hide the fact that some employees were working in Montreal.

The board has no way of verifying the NDP's assurance that the staffers did only parliamentary work, even though they worked alongside partisan employees in a party office, Duncan said.

However, the board is asking Elections Canada to look into the satellite office employees to determine whether the work they performed may have constituted an in-kind donation to a political party.

The NDP candidate's election return for last fall's byelection in the Montreal riding of Bourassa shows some of the employees were paid to work on the campaign, Duncan said, adding that "as far as we can determine, there was no leave of absence" from their satellite office jobs.

The Canadian Press identified 10 people who received some payment for work on the Bourassa campaign who, at one time or another, worked in the party's Montreal satellite office while on the Commons payroll. Whether they were working in the satellite office at the time of the byelection is not clear.

NDP spokeswoman Greta Levy said any staffer who worked on the campaign was on a leave of absence.

Last spring, the board issued a new bylaw specifically prohibiting MPs from using their Commons budgets to pay for staff who work out of an office owned or leased by a political party.

Since, then Levy said eight former satellite office employees have been working out of NDP Leader Tom Mulcair's Montreal constituency office. They are still on the Commons payroll and Duncan said the administration has been asked to determine whether that arrangement is also an improper use of parliamentary resources.

"My personal advice would be you're potentially adding to your liability," Duncan said. "The NDP is potentially adding to their liability so why would you continue to employ them in that fashion?"

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