‘Disgusting abuse of taxpayer money’: UCP-appointed panel exceeds travel/accommodation budget by thousands

(L-R) Jason Luan, Associate Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, Geri Bemister-Williams, vice-chair, Supervised Consumption Services Review Committee and Rod Knecht, chair, Supervised Consumption Services Review Committee listen to a question as the Government of Alberta released a report on safe consumption sites in Alberta during a press conference in Calgary on Thursday, March 5, 2020.

Members of a UCP-appointed panel tasked with reviewing Alberta’s supervised consumption sites were repeatedly warned about “excessive” spending of taxpayer dollars and potential “double-dipping,” according to documents obtained by Postmedia.

These expenses put committee members more than $10,000 over budget for travel, meal and accommodation costs, figures provided by the province show.

The eight-person committee consulted with site operators, local businesses, residents, elected officials and other stakeholders at town halls across affected cities last year before submitting a controversial report on the socio-economic effects of the sites to the government in late December.

The chair and vice-chair of the panel received particular attention from government staffers who appeared to struggle in their attempts to rein in spending.

Expenses incurred during the review could be claimed to the government.

Postmedia obtained correspondence about these claims ending Nov. 22 last year. It is unclear what expense claims were filed after that date.

In August last year, Jason Luan, associate minister of mental health and addictions, approved approximately $61,200 for travel and accommodation (including meals), $111,300 for town hall-related costs and $202,500 for honoraria, totalling $375,000.

Kassandra Kitz, press secretary to Luan, said the panel came under budget overall at $305,000. But she confirmed $72,000 was spent for travel and accommodation — $10,800 more than allocated.

Internal emails from August to November 2019 paint a picture of mounting frustration among civil servants, who reminded committee members multiple times about travel and expense policies, the need to eventually disclose expenses and “unreasonable” claims.

Some committee members seemingly ignored those warnings.

Kitz declined to comment on specific incidents called into question by provincial employees or confirm whether Luan was made aware of the concerns.

“We are processing your expense claims and have some feedback from our finance department that we would like to highlight for you. It is a gentle reminder that all expenses will be posted publicly,” stated an email to committee members on Sept. 30 last year.

“Our finance department is happy to process the current expenses but has flagged some expense items as being high. We will follow-up with individual emails of specific expense items that have been flagged, with the opportunity for you to opt for the per diem instead.”

Emails between government 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 a claim of $3,500 “more than entitled” on travel expenses and no-show fees at hotels.

By mid-November, one bureaucrat said they were concerned about reaching the budget ceiling for the review, one month before work was to be completed in mid-December.

Between Sept. 12 and Nov. 15, about $44,910 had been filed in travel and accommodation expenses, said government employees, prompting another warning to panel members. About $87,660 had been spent on town halls.

“We are very concerned about reaching the budget ceiling for the review before the work is completed mid-December, and that is much more concerning than charging a few dollars too much for lunch,” one staff member wrote in response to another employee who questioned an $18.80 breakfast for a committee member.

Kitz said it is not unusual for people unfamiliar with governmental financial policies to require clarification and assistance on their claims.

“Public servants worked with the panel members to reconcile their expense claims to be in line with longstanding Government of Alberta expense policy,” she said.

Kitz added the mere submission of a receipt does not mean the amount is reimbursed. For example, alcohol will be removed.

 (L-R) Doug Schweitzer, Minister of Justice and Solicitor General, Jason Luan, Associate Minister of Mental Health, Geri Bemister-Williams, vice-chair, Supervised Consumption Services Review Committee and Rod Knecht, chair, Supervised Consumption Services Review Committee are shown as the Government of Alberta released a report on safe consumption sites in Alberta during a press conference in Calgary on Thursday, March 5, 2020.

Committee chair and vice-chair’s spending raises concerns

More serious concerns were voiced by public servants related to committee vice-chair Geri Bemister-Williams’ expenses. Emails between government employees raised questions about Bemister-Williams potentially “double-dipping” regarding a travel claim (not included in emails) for

 

$3,500, which referenced a round-trip drive from Duncan, B.C., to Calgary — roughly 2,100 kilometres.

Staff said she was coming to Calgary for committee business in mid-August but did not claim meal or accommodation expenses for the trip. Staff thought Bemister-Williams could have been absorbing some claims by another party and only claiming mileage with the Government of Alberta.

Government personnel said they would ask for a more detailed itinerary from Bemister-Williams and would arrange an in-person meeting. The outcome of that meeting is unknown.

“There are HUGE issues with the claim to the tune of about $3,500 more than entitled. Obviously dont tell her anything at this point; I have done a full audit of the claim and given (a government employee) an itemized ‘problems’ listing,” read an email between colleagues in September. “It is going to take a while for all that to happen and for her to get paid, so try to keep under the radar but don’t make her any kind of promises.”

The response said: “I saw the revised one that you did. And actually laughed out loud that it was so out of whack.”

A financial analyst replied that Bemister-Williams would need to demonstrate the mileage expense was incurred for the sole purpose of conducting government business. The analyst said it would have been more appropriate for her to fly, and should have claimed for a lower mileage rate regardless.

A government staffer said the group was made aware of per diem amounts and “expectations for reasonableness,” and would be crafting another reminder about public disclosure of expenses and reaching budget allocation.

In October and November, additional questions were raised by government staff about Bemister-Williams’ expenses.

Bemister-Williams did not return a request for comment.

“These are taxpayer dollars at the end of the day and board member expenses do get published/disclosed to the public,” one employee reminder her on Nov. 19.

Another replied: “It was the disclosure piece that (a government employee) emphasized the last time hoping the committee would take that to heart.”

This same employee said former Edmonton police chief Rod Knecht, who chaired the panel, was “less concerned with public scrutiny,” while others were adhering more closely to meal rates.

Knecht’s spending came up consistently within the internal documents.

 Rod Knecht, chair, Supervised Consumption Services Review Committee listens to a question as the Government of Alberta released a report on safe consumption sites in Alberta during a press conference in Calgary on Thursday, March 5, 2020.

Meal reimbursement and allowance rates set by the government allow $9.20 for breakfast, $11.60 for lunch and $20.75 for dinner (alcoholic beverages are excluded). Knecht overspent the government standard for at least 19 meals between Aug. 12 and Oct. 10, including two prime rib dinners totalling $49.57 and $46.74.

Knecht declined to comment on his specific expenses.

However, he said, “to my knowledge the policy was strictly adhered to by all members of the committee and reviewed by the ministry for subsequent payment.” Knecht was referencing the government policy on travel, meal and hospitality expenses, which states a claimant can either claim the actual expense of the meal or the meal allowance.

The same document was referenced by government staff, who highlighted “taxpayer dollars are to be used prudently and responsibly with a focus on accountability and transparency.”

Committee member Paul Maxim, a former economics professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, also came under scrutiny for meal expenses in September. This included dinner bills totalling $97.02 for a “special” creme brûlée and wine, $64.61 for prime rib and wine, and $41.06 for ribs and a beer, in addition to an avocado toast breakfast with coffee coming to $19.85.

Alcohol was later removed by the department.

“The problem appeared to result from initial confusion over the guidelines and miscommunication with our colleagues at the ministry,” said Maxim.

He said when work began, committee members were told they would be reimbursed for the per diem amount or the actual cost of a meal with a receipt. He said most members initially submitted receipts.

“Some of us were then notified that there was a problem with the amounts submitted. I do not recall the specific details, but I remember that a few of my claims were reduced,” he said. “I don’t know what the other committee members did but, after that, I simply claimed the per diem amount when I had a meal and paid the difference out of pocket.”

He said it was a “difficult situation” because meal options were often limited and they had little time between committee work.

Both Maxim and Knecht declined to comment on whether additional expense claims were submitted after Nov. 22.

Related

Expenses might come ‘under scrutiny’

Later in 2019, government employees noted these expenses could come “under scrutiny.”

The government also had to cover $470 in no-show fees at a hotel in Edmonton. In October, a block of rooms was reserved for committee members. Letters by government staff were sent to the group to get in touch with the hotel to adjust the number of nights for their stay depending on their individual travel plans.

Three members, one on the account of a government employee, failed to do so, resulting in three one-night charges of $155.68.

Additional concerns were highlighted by officials at Alberta Heath and Alberta Finance between August and November last year.

Heather Sweet, the NDP Opposition critic for mental health and addictions, called the situation “a disgusting abuse of taxpayer money.”

“It’s disgusting that associate minister Luan has closed the busiest harm-reduction facility in North America — which was saving lives — over what he asserts as a misuse of taxpayer money, even while he was approving expenses for his own panel,” said Sweet, referencing the

closure

of the

AIDS Outreach Community Harm Reduction Education Support Society

(ARCHES) in Lethbridge.

 Heather Sweet, MLA for Edmonton-Manning, responds to Premier Jason Kenney’s comments after a provincial COVID-19 update at the Federal Building at the Alberta Legislature in Edmonton, on Friday, March 27, 2020.

“The government has a responsibility to be financially diligent and to ensure that any staff or panel or anything that they set up follows the rules,” said Sweet.

The UCP pulled funding from ARCHES following an

audit that found more than $1.6 million in unaccounted funds

and other “misappropriated” public money.

Sweet said Alberta is experiencing a “fiscal reckoning” as the UCP slashes budgets related to health care and education, while their “insiders” dine on the taxpayer dime.

She said the ministry should have asked individuals to pay back any money that exceeded government rates.

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