Transparency over what the House shells out for MPs who face legal challenges could be a viable tool in the fight to stem sexual harassment on the Hill, but former members of the Commons Board of Internal Economy and taxpayers’ advocates caution that revealing too much information could do more harm than good.
In a Nov. 30 iPolitics column, journalist Michael Harris said all expenses for MPs should be detailed and out in the open. Headlined “Here’s how we rip the lid off sexual harassment on the Hill,” Mr. Harris—who was not available for an interview with The Hill Times—said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) should push for the publication of “the detailed expenses of MPs, Senators, and senior bureaucrats. Why? Because secrecy only serves to support bad actors. And if people in public life are racking up legal expenses linked to severance, the federal government should let Canadians know if any portion of that money went to settling sexual harassment cases.”
The House Board of Internal Economy, a powerful group of seven MPs chaired by House Speaker Geoff Regan (Halifax West, N.S.) that makes decisions on how the Commons is managed, sets bylaws, and approves legal fees for MPs, has met for decades in secret, but recently opened up its meetings to public view as of Oct. 19.
However, issues of individual expenses, such as when the board approves covering legal fees for MPs, or allows exemptions for those who need to go over their allowed expense limits, are decided in-camera, along with other personnel, security, and legal matters.
Green Party leader Elizabeth May (Saanich-Gulf Islands, B.C.), who doesn’t have access to the BOIE’s in-camera decision making meetings, agreed that publicizing the names of MPs who have their legal costs covered and the amount they receive could be “something of a deterrent” to sexual abusers on the Hill if they knew their actions “won’t all be brushed under the carpet.”
Ms. May said all payments made from public funds should be done transparently and that she couldn’t see a circumstance where that wouldn’t be the case, outside of having to protect the identity of the victim.
MPs can have their legal costs covered for matters ranging from wrongful dismissal suits to libel cases to actions stemming from personal injury at a constituency office to sexual harassment.
“It’s not fair that even a frivolous attack on someone will hurt their reputation long term, at least a little, but the reality is, if you’re asking the federal government and Parliament itself to cover your legal costs, I think that has to be public,” Ms. May said.
Current board member and NDP House leader MP Peter Julian (New Westminster-Burnaby, B.C.), speaking to The Hill Times following the group’s Dec. 7 meeting, said sensitive issues such as legal matters and health are typically treated differently by most boards and government bodies.
When it comes to legal fees in cases of harassment, Mr. Julian said the board needs “to be very clear about what the process is, because we want to make sure we’re protecting the confidentiality of the victim as well, unless the victim chooses otherwise.”
He said “taxpayers have a right to know, ultimately, what is being paid in terms of legal fees. The question is: how do you get that balance—ensure confidentiality of the victims and disclosure to the public. And I think we’re still working through that.”
When asked for comment, other board members deferred to the group’s official spokespeople, Fisheries and Oceans Minister Dominic LeBlanc (Beauséjour, N.B.) and Conservative MP Mark Strahl (Chilliwack-Hope, B.C.). Mr. Strahl’s office said he was unavailable for comment while Mr. LeBlanc’s said he had no comment.
In an email, Heather Bradley, director of communications to the House Speaker, explained that if a legal matter crops up in the course of their parliamentary duties, MPs are required to consult with the office of the House’s law clerk and parliamentary counsel Philippe Dufresne.
Depending on the case, the office might recommend the MP seek outside legal representation, she said, and ask the BOIE to be reimbursed for the cost, which is decided on a case-by-case basis.
“If a request is granted, the fees are reimbursed based on a pre-established rates set by the board,” Ms. Bradley said. “If a request is not granted, Members would be required to personally assume the payment of the legal fees.”
Board of Internal Economy minutes indicate when these approvals are made, but don’t offer any other information, including how much of an expense was approved.
As The Hill Times previously reported, board minutes used to contain more details, at least through the 1990s, and MPs were identified when they requested reimbursement for legal expenses.
According to available meeting minutes online, the board has indicated at least 16 approvals (some of which cover an unspecified number of MPs) between September 2011 and November 2017 for legal expenses.
The expenses are captured in the House of Commons’ annual reporting in public accounts, under professional services, Ms. Bradley said. In 2017, the House reported $474,644 for legal services, though how much of that is to cover MPs’ legal costs is not specified. Of the total, $388,667 went to the law firm Borden Ladner Gervais, with the rest consisting of 26 payments of less than $100,000.
Aaron Wudrick, national director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said that although his instinct is going to be that governments should be open by default, “if naming an MP would expose a victim, I think it’s reasonable that we don’t get transparency.”
He said the board should take its cues from the court system, and if it’s something that can be found in the public record, then the corresponding payment of fees should be equally public.
Mr. Wudrick also noted that specifying that a payment was made to a specific MP for a specific amount to cover legal costs for an unspecified matter would also work.
Rob Merrifield, who represented the Alberta riding of Yellowhead from 2000 to 2014, was a Conservative representative on the board from 2011 to 2014. He told The Hill Times that the “problem here is it’s a politically charged arena, so what you have to be careful of is if you are too open about an accusation, you’re presumed guilty before you’ve actually been able to defend yourself.”
While he’s in favour of more transparency from the board overall, Mr. Merrifield said making the public aware of how much is spent on MPs’ legal fees “would be fine, as long as there’s not names involved.”
Former House Speaker Peter Milliken and BOIE chair said the reason the board has traditionally held those discussions in private was to reduce partisanship.
“You didn’t bother trying to score points on the other side by pointing out that one of their members did this or did that. If the Member did something wrong, there was usually unanimous agreement that he had to pay the money back or this wasn’t an allowable expense or whatever it was,” he said.
When it comes to making legal fees more transparent, he said it would depend on the issue at stake.
“I can imagine that a lot of Members wouldn’t want the nature of the issue made public if it hadn’t been public before. If the member got into with an employee, who was suing, why would you make that a matter of public record if the Member or the employee didn’t want it public?” Mr. Milliken said. “But that sort of thing would be public if they got to court, that’s for sure. So in that sense, it wouldn’t matter, but if it were resolved without going to court, you might not make it public.”
The Hill Times