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Updated: Thu, 07 Aug 2014 22:14:06 GMT | By CBC News, cbc.ca

Alison Redford used public money 'inappropriately,' AG says



The premier's office says commercial flights were considered, but there were news reports of passenger backlogs. Mark Blinch/Canadian Press

The premier's office says commercial flights were considered, but there were news reports of passenger backlogs. Mark Blinch/Canadian Press

Alison Redford and her office used taxpayer money "inappropriately" during her time as Alberta premier, with planes used for personal and partisan purposes, provincial Auditor General MerwanSaher has found.

Saher released his report into Redford’s work expenses on Thursday morning.

"They consistently failed to demonstrate in the documents we examined that their travel expenses were necessary and a reasonable and appropriate use of public resources," Saher wrote.

"Premier Redford used public assets (aircraft) for personal and partisan purposes. And Premier Redford was involved in a plan to convert public space in a public building into personal living space.

"How could this have happened? The answer is the aura of power around Premier Redford and her office and the perception that the influence of the office should not be questioned."

In a written statement, Alberta Justice Minister Jonathan Denis said that the report has been forwarded to the RCMP for review. 

"I have instructed Tim Grant, deputy minister, justice and solicitor general, to forward the report and its attachments to the RCMP," Denis said in the news release. "Any investigation that the RCMP does will be fully independent of my office and, as such, I will have no further comment on the matter.

"Should the RCMP require legal advice on its investigation, I have arranged for prosecutors with the Ontario attorney general's office to exclusively work on this matter. This will further ensure a fully independent investigation and remove any perception of conflict of interest."

The RCMP confirmed that it has accepted the report, but said it may or may not investigate the issues raised by the auditor general.

Redford resigned as premier in March over questions about her spending, use of government planes and leadership style.

She stepped down as MLA for Calgary-Elbow on Wednesday, one day before the release of Saher’s report.

Daughter flew alone on government planes

In the hard-hitting report, Saher found there was a tendency for the government "to work around or ignore rules" to fulfil requests from Redford’s office.

It was done in a way "that avoided leaving the premier with personal responsibility for decisions," the report states. "Other areas of government were wary of challenging decisions made in the premier’s office."

Saher found eight examples where Redford used a government plane to travel to PC Party events. In three of those instances, there was no government business scheduled. 

In a statement, PC Party president Jim McCormick said that the party will pay back the $6,500 cost of the three flights. He denied any knowledge of the inappropriate expenses and said that responsibility lies with Redford. 

Saher also confirmed the practice of "block booking" to make the plane appear full, so Redford and her entourage could fly alone.

The review also found cases where Redford flew alone with her teen daughter and the girl’s friends. There were even instances where Redford's daughter flew by herself.

In all, Redford’s daughter flew on a government plane 50 times between September 2011 and March 2014.

"We conclude that Premier Redford obtained a personal benefit by having her daughter accompany her on government aircraft," the report says.

The report also examined trips Redford made to Vancouver in March 2013 and Jasper in June 2013.

"We concluded that there was a greater personal time component to these trips than a government business component," the report states.

The government plane was booked for Redford to attend her uncle’s funeral in Vancouver. Two meetings were scheduled in Vancouver once the decision was made to use the plane for the trip, the report says.  

Redford repaid $1,624 for the trip, $184 for one night in a hotel and $1,440 to cover the cost of two commercial plane tickets for her and her daughter. The trip actually cost the government $5,663.

The report also found: 

- The government’s expenses policy says economy class is to be booked for all domestic flights. However, Redford and her executive assistants usually travelled business class. "We did not find documentation explaining the business reasons for upgrades to business class travel or preapprovals for these upgrades."

- Examples of Redford’s staff extending their stay, and making a side trip or personal stopover on their way back to Alberta. "We did not see a process or documentation at either ministry to assess whether the personal components of these trips resulted in additional costs to the government."

- "We did find the cost for Premier Redford’s room was often considerably higher in comparison to the accommodation costs for other staff travelling with her to the same location and staying at the same hotel."

- Redford used the government plane 247 times between October 2012 and March 2014. In 24 instances, commercial flights were available to destinations within Alberta.

- In April 2013, Redford used a government plane to return to Alberta from Palm Springs for the funeral of former premier Ralph Klein. The cost of the flight was $10,603. Her staff found commercial options, but they told the auditor general that Redford insisted on using the government plane.

- A trip Redford took to India and Davos, Switzerland, in January 2014 was $450,000, not $130,000 as publicly reported by the government.

Government flights cost more 

Saher also reviewed the cost of the government fleet. In 2012, his analysis found that the planes cost Alberta taxpayers $9.3 million. A combination of commercial flights and driving would have cost $5.4 million – a difference of $3.9 million.

Saher said it is not within the scope of his investigation to state whether the province should maintain aircraft; that’s for the government to decide. However, he noted the Treasury Board and Finance Departments may have some explaining to do to the public.

"The service provides scheduling flexibility and the means of conducting business in private," the report says.

"The department needs to explain this to Albertans and consider whether the $3.9 million in additional cost for this service is a worthwhile use of public money."

The report makes six recommendations:

- The Treasury Board and finance departments must provide oversight of premier’s expenses and use of government aircraft.

- The province must evaluate the costs of the government fleet and make the results public.

- Rules for government aircraft use must be clarified for partisan and personal use.

- The government must clarify requirements to evaluate cost effectiveness when a request is made.

- The government must evaluate out-of-province use of government aircraft. A cost-benefit analysis must be performed whenever a request is made and it must be approved by the responsible minister or deputy minister.

- The government must review the "costing model" on government aircraft and report costs to the public.

The report adds that costs may be greater since the planes have moved from the now-closed City Centre Airport in the middle of Edmonton to Edmonton International, which is south of city limits.

Alberta Premier Dave Hancock said his government accepts all the recommendations in the auditor general's report and will work to implement them immediately.

Horner defends government fleet

WildroseMLA Kerry Towle called for the resignation of Finance Minister Doug Horner, whose ministry oversees the government fleet, saying he failed to do his job.

Towle said Saher’s report reveals a government "completely off the rails."

"It goes to show how 43 years in power allows for these kinds of discretions because nobody saw anything wrong with it and nobody thought to question, and this is just not the expectation of Alberta taxpayers," she said.  

However, Horner said he has no plans on resigning or selling the government fleet of airplanes.

"I’m not responsible for the use of the aircraft. As I said before ... the current policy that we have is that individual ministers are responsible for advising as to what the purpose of the plane is going to be, who is going to be on that plane, when it’s going to leave, what’s going to happen," he said Thursday afternoon.

"In fact, they are the only authorized persons who can make change to that, right up to flight time."

At his news conference that lasted nearly an hour, Saher said that Redford did not book the flights herself, but that did not absolve her of responsibility. He said that he didn't plan to name the people in her office that made the bookings, either.

"I don't think it affects the quality of our finding. There was no personal benefit to those individuals," he said. "And I don't intend to engage in scapegoating.  And by that I mean naming individuals who end up taking the blame for the shortcomings of others."

When asked by a reporter whether anything he discovered struck him as a matter that should be investigated by the RCMP, Saher replied that wasn't his role to determine. He reports to the government, and said the government can forward the report to the RCMP if it chooses

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