The federal government spent more than $300,000 to move six high-ranking officials at Canada’s national energy regulator to Calgary, according to documents obtained by National Observer under access-to-information legislation.
The numbers have prompted fresh criticism about the rules on reimbursement for moving expenses that was ignited by a political controversy last September over the cost of transferring members of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's inner circle to Ottawa.
The total bill for the six moves was at least $341,275. That included $306,491 in moving expenses claimed by the officials, plus $34,783 billed by Public Services and Procurement Canada to arrange shipping of thousands of kilograms of the employees' belongings to their new homes.
Most of the expenses claimed by the six National Energy Board (NEB) officials were legal fees related to selling and buying homes, plus expenses for hotels, mileage and meals, according to the documents. Five of the six executives moved to Calgary after 2014, while one of the moves happened in 2012.
Two of the officials, NEB chief executive Peter Watson and board member Keith Chaulk, were political appointees approved by former prime minister Stephen Harper's cabinet. NEB executives' salary scale is $108,500 to $199,600 annually, excluding bonuses, according to the regulator's current salary guidelines.
The NEB is the only federal regulator located outside of the Ottawa region, and board members and employees are required to live within commuting distance of the agency’s headquarters in Calgary. As federal employees, they are eligible to claim moving expenses when they relocate for work.
“Relocation expenses must be directly related to the relocation, clearly reasonable and justified, and supported by receipts as stipulated within (federal government policy),” NEB spokesman Craig Loewen said in an email.
Aaron Wudrick, federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, says his organization would like to see limits on relocation expenses.
"There has to be a hard cap," Wudrick told National Observer. "We can't have these numbers start creeping up to $100,000, $200,000. That's really not reasonable.We're not saying you have to bear all the costs, but is it also reasonable for taxpayers to pick up every dime?"
The federal government is scheduled to review the rules for reimbursements of relocation expenses for all public servants, but a spokesman for the Treasury Board Secretariat, which is responsible for those rules, didn't respond to a request for comment on the CTF's recommendation for a cap on relocation expenses.
Five of the six moved occurred while the former Harper government was in power in Ottawa.
Flights included in the NEB expenses were economy class, while most hotel bills were between $100 and $200 per night, and most meals between $15 and $40. Watson stayed at the Sandman Hotel for eight nights at $174 per night as he waited to move into his new home, while NEB chief safety officer Keith Landra spent 14 nights at the Calgary airport Ramada hotel for $129 per night.
The closest thing to extravagance in the expenses seen by National Observer is an $8 cheesecake dessert that Watson ordered with a modest dinner at a Moxie's restaurant at a downtown Calgary hotel.
Five of the six board members’ expense reports show that they received substantial “personalized cash payouts,” which cover a variety of expenses associated with moving, beyond the cost of buying and selling a home.
Expense documents redacted
Watson's relocation expenses from Edmonton include a $23,681 "personalized component," which includes expenses for meals, "non-accountable incidentals," a "personalized cash payout" and a "mortgage interest buydown." The exact amounts of those expenses, which are confidential, were redacted from documents provided to National Observer.
The $38,484.95 bill for chief operating officer Josée Touchette's move from Ottawa to Calgary in 2015 includes $26,652 for a personalized cash payout, as well as some reimbursed expenses that apppear to have been paid out as a Registered Retirement Savings Plan contribution. The exact amounts are redacted. The bill also includes $650 for non-accountable incidentals.
Watson and Touchette did not respond to requests for comment.
Two of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s aides said they would return the personalized cash payout portions of their moving expenses after a report by The Globe and Mail in September 2016 revealed that they had been reimbursed about $207,000 when they moved to Ottawa after the federal election.
After intense criticism in the House of Commons and the media, Gerald Butts, Trudeau’s chief advisor, and Katie Telford, the prime minister’s chief of staff said they would return about $44,000 of the expenses, which the two described in a statement as “unreasonable.”
According to the statement, neither felt “comfortable” about the personalized cash payouts they had received, which are intended to cover costs associated with moving. Butts also said he would return most of the $25,141 he had been repaid for the land transfer tax for his new home.
That incident resulted in a review of the federal government’s policy on reimbursing the moving expenses of ministers and political staff. Changes from that review are expected by this summer, Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS) spokesman Martin Potvin said.
The federal government is also expected to start a regularly-scheduled review of the NJC directive this spring, with implementation of changes next year, Potvin said.
The relocation bills also include individual costs for hotels, food and gas mileage between moves and on house-hunting trips. Other reimbursements include the costs of temporary housing between selling and buying a new home, as well as during house-hunting trips to the Calgary area.
Wudrick, from the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said his organization also advocates stricter controls on expenses which can be claimed without supporting receipts, which can include some of the often-large personalized cash payouts.
"These are very privileged positions to have," Wudrick said. "They pay well, there's job security and a lot of benefits. If it means you have to take a bit of a haircut on a house sale or moving, is that unreasonable to ask? For a lot of Canadians who have nowhere near that kind of plum position, I don't think it's fair to ask them to subsidize the moves for people who do."
Expenses for Sylvain Bédard, who moved last year to take over a newly-created position as an executive vice-president of transparency and strategic engagement, are still being finalized, so the NEB would release only an estimate which shows that his move to Calgary last year is expected to cost $34,337. Bédard, who previously worked for Bombardier, received an advance of $6,500 on those expenses last year. His original residence is not included in the expense documents, and he and the NEB did not respond to National Observer's request for clarification.
NEB human resources documents obtained by National Observer show that Bédard was hired in a position with a salary range between $142,800 and $178,300. The documents also show that members of the executive group of NEB staff are eligible to receive a lump-sum "performance award" worth up to 21.1 per cent of their salary, as well as a retention bonus.
Details on moving expenses:
According to the documents released to National Observer, the six members repaid for moving expenses are:
- NEB chair and CEO Peter Watson: $55,151.60 for his move in 2014 from Sherwood Park, Alta., which is near Edmonton.
- Chief operating officer Josée Touchette: $38,484.95 for her move from Ottawa in 2015.
- Vice-president for transparency and strategic engagement, Sylvain Bédard: estimated $34,337.22 for his move after starting a new job in August 2016. The NEB said it didn't yet have a total amount reimbursed for Bédard's move.
- Board member Keith Chaulk: $73,014.62 for his move from Happy Valley Goose Bay, Nfld. in 2015.
- Chief safety officer Keith Landra: $70,052.43 for his move from Fall River, N.S. to Calgary in 2015.
- Former NEB chief financial officer John Pinsent: $63,288.23 for his move from Carp, Ont. in 2012.
Editor's note: This article was updated at 8:15 am on April 4 with additional details about when the moving expenses occurred.