‘Clear abuses of public funds’: NDP slams Luan after SCS review panel’s expenses revealed

NDP MLA Heather Sweet

Alberta’s NDP Opposition is calling on the government to provide the public a full breakdown of costs incurred by a committee tasked with analyzing the province’s supervised consumption sites, after documents revealed panelists 

were repeatedly warned about “excessive” and “unreasonable” spending.

Internal emails obtained by Postmedia demonstrated a mounting level of frustration among civil servants as committee members

went more than $10,000 over budget

for travel, meal and accommodation costs.

In a letter sent Monday to Jason Luan, associate minister of mental health and addictions, NDP MLA Heather Sweet called it “unacceptable for a panel you tasked with denying healthcare to the most vulnerable Albertans to charge these excessive and unreasonable luxuries to the Alberta taxpayer.”

“Officials from Alberta Health repeatedly warned your appointed panel members to bring their spending into line with Treasury Board and Finance policy, apparently without success,” wrote Sweet, the Opposition critic for mental health and addictions.

“I am concerned that your office was either unaware of these abuses, or failed to intervene.”

In August 2019, Luan approved a budget of approximately $61,200 for travel and accommodation (including meals), $111,300 for town hall-related costs and $202,500 for honoraria, totalling $375,000,

according to documents

obtained by Postmedia.

Luan’s office said the eight-member committee came under budget overall at $305,000, but confirmed $72,000 was spent for travel and accommodation — $10,800 more than originally allocated.

Luan

released the findings of the panel’s review

 in March, describing a “system of chaos” at supervised consumption sites across the province.

The correspondence surrounding the panel’s spending ended Nov. 22 last year and it’s unclear what expense claims were filed after that date.

Civil servants repeatedly reminded committee members about travel and expense policies, “unreasonable” claims, and the need to publicly disclose expenses, but some committee members seemingly ignored those warnings.

“Unfortunately, the documents released . . . do not present a complete picture of your panel’s mismanagement,” Sweet wrote Monday in a letter to Luan, which was also sent to Finance Minister Travis Toews.

“I ask you to provide a full accounting of the Supervised Consumption Services Review Committee and table that document in the legislature, so that Albertans may judge for themselves if you are a competent steward of their tax dollars or not.”

Related

Emails between provincial staff expressed concern about panel members routinely overspending on meals. Recurring “excessive” meals included prime rib dinners, avocado toast and a “special” with creme brûlée and wine.

Questions also surrounded an alleged claim of $3,500 “more than entitled” on travel expenses by committee vice-chair Geri Bemister-Williams.

Provincial employees questioned Bemister-Williams potentially “double-dipping” regarding a travel claim in emails which referenced a round-trip drive from Duncan, B.C., to Calgary — roughly 2,100 kilometres. Staff commented that there were “huge issues with the claim.”

Sweet raised concern that the province 

appointed Bemister-Williams

 in late July to its

Mental Health Review Panel

, which “makes decisions on applications pertaining to admission, competence and administration of treatment for people under the Mental Health Act.”

“This position frequently involves travel expenses, and Albertans have a right to know that appointees understand and respect their responsibilities to the taxpayer,” Sweet wrote.

 Associate Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Jason Luan

She added it was also “the height of hypocrisy” for the UCP government to pull its funding for Lethbridge’s only supervised drug consumption site, for which it cited a misuse of public funds, “while you yourself approved expenses that were a flagrant misuse of public funds.”

The site, run by the AIDS Outreach Community Harm Reduction Education Support Society (ARCHES),

marked its final day of operations on Monday

after the UCP government stripped its funding in July. The announcement came after an audit

found more than $1.6 million in unaccounted funds

and other “misappropriated” public money at the site.

“You have documented proof of inappropriate spending on the SCS Review Committee. Not only have you failed to properly review them, but you have failed to release them to the public,” Sweet wrote to Luan.

“These are Alberta taxpayers’ dollars, Minister, and you were entrusted with managing them responsibly. Charging the taxpayer with personal road trips, steak dinners, prime rib, creme brulee, and avocado toast are clear abuses of public funds.”

A spokesperson for Luan’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter.

—With files from Alanna Smith

[email protected]

Twitter:

@SammyHudes

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