Port of Montreal CEO under fire at ethics committee
Published Thursday, May 10, 2012 9:06PM EDT
A one-month trip to Australia and New Zealand by Old Port of Montreal CEO Claude Benoit that cost taxpayers more than $10,000 was justified and approved by the Crown Corporation's board, she testified Thursday.
The down-under trip is one expense among a number that have raised eyebrows since they were first reported in the media last month.
That led to a rare all-party agreement to have Benoit and board chairman Gerry Weiner appear before the House of Commons ethics committee.
Benoit, who took the personal trip in 2008 and early 2009 that included first-class airfare and luxury accommodations, said it was necessary to visit sites "of particular interest" to the Old Port tourist attraction.
"These are exhibits that we are considering bringing to the Old Port of Montreal," she told the committee.
Benoit denied the trip resulted in only one nine-page power-point presentation, telling committee members seven reports were produced and 275 photographs taken that were presented to the Old Port's managers.
NDP committee member Alexandre Boulerice told Benoit he didn't accept her response and said taxpayers' money was used to pay for half her trip, accusing the Crown agency of throwing money out the window.
Benoit replied the expenses followed Treasury Board guidelines and said the Port also receives guests on similar missions to share expertise.
"It is absolutely normal and essential the CEO be able to do site visits and see what's going on elsewhere ... to inspire yourself at other people's ideas and expertise, to keep your network going," she said.
During the trip to Sydney and Auckland, Benoit also spent two nights on a luxury cruise ship.
Benoit claimed she worked for 10 days of the 29-day trip, even though she didn't meet any officials during that time.
Instead, she visited port facilities and the large "southern star" ferris wheel in Melbourne.
That prompted Conservative MP Dean Del Mastro to suggest sarcastically he didn't know the government was planning to build a ferris wheel.
Benoit, who received the Order of Canada in 2004, said all the Port's initiatives and plans are filed with the government.
"We table an annual business plan to the government, describe all undertakings, these projects are already tabled," she said.
"So the government is aware of our initiatives."
Del Mastro pressed the issue and asked if the reports could be filed with the committee.
"We would be very pleased to send them to the committee if you feel they would be relevant," Benoit responded. She added the reports have already been filed with the deputy minister (Transport, Infrastructure and Communities).
Under questioning, Benoit said, since 2010, the Port has been working to control costs because of the government austerity measures.
"We have really reduced our costs, we've reduced our staff by 10 per cent, so I think we have taken some very responsible steps in order to balance out budget," she said, maintaining government subsidies allow the public free access to the 19.5 hectare site.
Benoit also defended her $1,000 per month car allowance and about $38,000 for catered meals to the corporation's offices.
"The catering costs that you've heard about and that seem astronomical I can tell that over three years since 2009, 175 work meetings, including over 2,000 meals and snacks were served for an average of $15 per person," she said.
"These meals were not served and catered in my office as reported in the media," Benoit said, adding the food for working meetings that included volunteers and scientists totalled $11,300 a year.
She also defended a once-a-year offsite meeting of managers as "totally justified in my opinion," arguing the team manages a $48 million budget and $500 million in assets and such events allow managers to "focus on work that we're doing."
With cutbacks in place, Benoit said the 2011 meeting was held in Montreal.
Liberal MP Denis Coderre asked Benoit to justify the high costs of her annual car lease, saying she seems to "be a Conservative minister in your own limousine."
She shot back that the lease was a taxable benefit and the vehicle was used for the business of the Port and not her own.
"This is a benefit that's part of my compensation package and over the last 12 years, it has been at the same level," she said.
"It has nothing to do with where I live. I do not use it to go back and forth from work," Benoit said.
Weiner, a member of former prime minister Brian Mulroney's government, said at the time he thought the trip to Australia was appropriate, but added he may not have approved it now as the government works to reduce the deficit.
But he said it's important the Port continue to improve its brand by "getting first-hand knowledge."
The committee will reconvene in about one week to continue the probe.
Other expenses under scrutiny include:
- Since 2009, the Old Port Corporation spent approximately $17,000 on two working retreats at Quebec's Mont-Tremblant resort
- Taxpayers were left with a $110,000 legal bill after an attempt to evict a business from the area ended with the business getting an injunction to stop the corporation from interfering