Former Toronto NDP MP cleared of $140K in satellite offices dispute
Former NDP MP Dan Harris is shown speaking to CTV News Channel in this file photo.
Published Thursday, January 7, 2016 4:52PM EST
A former NDP MP from Toronto has learned he will not be on the hook for $140,000 in outstanding expenses linked to his party’sspending on satellite office staffers.
Dan Harris, the ousted MP for the riding of Scarborough Southwest, has been cleared of the vast majority of office expenses accrued to pay one of his staffers from the summer of 2011 to May 2014. Harris received the news in mid-December, after submitting proof to the House of Commons’ board of internal economy, showing that his staffer was working on parliamentary business – not partisan campaigning.
Harris was one of more than five dozen NDP MPs who were ordered to repay a total of $2.75 million for improperly using their parliamentary office budgets to pay staffers’ salaries at satellite party offices in Toronto, Montreal and Quebec. Harris had one of the largest bills in his party, with $141,467 originally deemed to be outstanding.
That number has now been cut down to $1,289, the same amount outstanding for six other defeated Toronto-area NDP MPs, Harris said.
Harris says he’s relieved to be rid of the massive bill, but he wishes it could have been resolved before it could affect his re-election campaign. A Conservative leaflet circulated in Harris’ riding cited the $141,467 in expenses to attack his reputation, he said.
“It was definitely a nuisance and it definitely hurt my reputation, but the election’s over and now I’m able to get it resolved and move on,” Harris told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview.
Harris ultimately lost his seat to the Liberals’ Bill Blair, the former police chief of Toronto.
The accused NDP MPs have so far refused to pay back the funds, and have been preparing to take the case to court. The party has also accused the Liberals and the Conservatives of drudging up the issue and delaying its resolution as an election ploy.
“That was the entire purpose of the Liberals and Conservatives doing this, was to drag us down into the mud with them, and to have this hanging over us during the election,” Harris said. “And on their part, mission accomplished.”
Former NDP MPs Isabelle Morin and Jean Rousseau were among the highest-owing party members in Quebec, with outstanding expenses of $169,117 and $122,122, respectively. Both were defeated in the Oct. 19 election. Alexandre Boulerice, who owes $142,548, managed to hold onto his seat.
The NDP party leader’s office owes $408,573 in expenses racked up under current leader Thomas Mulcair and his predecessor, interim leader Nycole Turmel. The NDP House leader’s office owes $189,714.
Harris said he hopes other MPs accused of improper spending can use the same method he did to resolve the issue.
“To my knowledge, I’m the only MP that’s had any significant amount knocked off yet,” Harris said. “But it should give an avenue for several other Quebec MPs, especially the ones with large amounts, to do the same thing I did.”
Harris used archived emails obtained from the House of Commons IT department to prove that his staffer was being paid to work on parliamentary business, not partisan activities. He said other MPs accused in the scandal are attempting to pursue the same route, but they may not be able to match his success.
“If other MPs didn’t (request the emails) – and the deadline to do that was Nov. 19 – if other MPs didn’t do that, they might not have those emails to send in as proof that the person worked for them,” Harris said.
Back in July, the House’s board of internal economy began withholding 25 per cent of accused MPs’ expense reimbursements, to help pay down what they owed, Harris said. But after the Oct. 19 election, the board began withholding 100 per cent of reimbursements from ousted MPs, meaning Harris had to pay the cost of moving back home from Ottawa.
“I had to personally, out of pocket, cover the move,” Harris said. He had even pondered selling his house to pay for his expenses.
However, now that most of his claims have been cleared, Harris expects he will be able to successfully claim his moving expenses.
He also fully expects to collect his severance pay and pension contribution reimbursement, which total about one year’s worth of salary. There had been some speculation last year that that money could be in jeopardy for ousted MPs accused of improper spending, but Harris says those payments are protected from being withheld because they are considered part of each MP’s salary.
Court case implications
The NDP launched a court challenge in 2014, after the board of internal economy ordered its members to reimburse $2.7 million in inappropriate spending, as well as another $1.2 million for improper use of parliamentary mailing privileges.
Harris plans to speak with the NDP lawyers about whether or not he will remain part of the court challenge. Harris and six other Toronto MPs are still on the hook for $1,289, which was paid to a staffer who briefly worked for the party. That money is part of the NDP court case.
The case has been slow to get going, despite what Harris says were repeated attempts from his party to get the issue resolved before the election. “The government rebuffed us at every turn there because they wanted the issue out there during the election,” he said.