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Editorial

Manitoba's red-faced senators fight on

Sen. Sharon Carstairs.

COURTNEY CAMPBELL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Sen. Sharon Carstairs.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/11/2015 (1285 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

And then there were seven.

That’s the number of former or sitting senators who will take their chances in a court of law over expenses an auditor’s report said were claimed wrongly.

Of the other 23 senators named in the auditor general’s report earlier this year, most have opted for binding arbitration, and some have repaid the disputed funds while simultaneously protesting their innocence.

Pay up, go to arbitration or face a lawsuit. Those were the choices the Senate offered the embattled 30 named in the audit report. The deadline for choosing a path has expired.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/11/2015 (1285 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

And then there were seven.

That’s the number of former or sitting senators who will take their chances in a court of law over expenses an auditor’s report said were claimed wrongly.

Of the other 23 senators named in the auditor general’s report earlier this year, most have opted for binding arbitration, and some have repaid the disputed funds while simultaneously protesting their innocence.

Pay up, go to arbitration or face a lawsuit. Those were the choices the Senate offered the embattled 30 named in the audit report. The deadline for choosing a path has expired.

Nine cases were referred to the RCMP, but no charges were laid.

Manitoba Sen. Janis Johnson repaid about $20,000, even though she says she did nothing wrong. She said she gave up the money for the sake of the Senate’s reputation and to save taxpayers the cost of trying to recoup it.

Her response was typical of many of the senators who decided to pay rather than fight. Some of them had clearly taken money inappropriately, while other cases were more ambiguous because the Senate’s rules are pathetically vague.

Former Manitoba senators Sharon Carstairs and Rod Zimmer are two of the seven who have neither repaid the disputed funds nor opted for arbitration before former Supreme Court justice Ian Binnie.

Mr. Zimmer, who is on the hook for $176,000 in travel and residency claims, says it is inappropriate for the Senate to proceed until the criminal trial of Sen. Mike Duffy concludes.

Many of the issues over residency are part of the Duffy trial, but Mr. Zimmer is wrong in assuming the issue is identical in every case. The judge in the Duffy case could well agree the rules were loaded with loopholes, but that most people would not abuse them.

And then there is the case against Ms. Carstairs. The auditor said she wrongly claimed Winnipeg as her primary residence and Ottawa as a secondary home for expense purposes and owes the taxpayer about $7,500. There is no definition in the Senate rules as to what constitutes a primary residence, except it has to be "in the province... represented by the senator."

The former Manitoba Liberal leader could easily repay the small sum and put the matter behind her, but she has decided to put her trust in the court, assuming the Senate pursues the matter.

Unlike Mr. Duffy, the former Manitoba senator had plenty of documentation showing Winnipeg as her principal residence, including a driver’s licence, health card, vehicle registration and bank accounts. She voted and paid taxes in Manitoba, which no one would do if they could avoid it.

Ms. Carstairs is adamant she respected both the letter and the spirit of the Senate rules. If that’s the case, then it’s not hard to understand why she is pumped for a fight.

The auditor said in fiscal 2010-11 — a small sample of her Senate career — Ms. Carstairs spent only 32 days in Winnipeg and 153 days in Ottawa. Of course that only makes sense for someone who works in the capital. The concept of primary residence is complicated by the fact some senators may spend more time at their desks than others, depending on their interests and responsibilities.

Ms. Carstairs could have defended her reputation through arbitration, but a court decision would be more conclusive. The rules of evidence and fairness might also be in her favour in a courtroom.

She hasn’t backed away from resolving the dispute, she’s raised the ante.

The public is the winner in each of these cases because the Senate rules will eventually be clearer and the bar for the moral conduct of public officials will be set even higher.

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