are times, Dear Reader, when an innocent citizen may wonder whether
the people we send to Ottawa pay any attention to the money they
spend. Take the strange saga of Senator Raymond Lavigne. A former
Liberal MP from Quebec, Senator Lavigne has been in a spot of trouble
over his use of public funds. Although he has not been permitted to
do any Senate work for three-plus years, Sen. Lavigne still draws his
full $132,300 annual salary.
The story goes back to 2005,
when the couple who owned the property next to Lavigne's cottage in
the Gatineau Hills north of Ottawa discovered a man chopping down
some of their trees. It turned out the man was Daniel Côté, a
former nightclub bouncer, who was on the Senate payroll as a
$55,000-a-year aide in Lavigne's office, where he sorted the
not performing such personal chores as clearing trees or accompanying
the senator and his wife on a Caribbean vacation.
The next-door people complained.
The RCMP investigated Lavigne and eventually, in 2007, he was charged
with fraud, breach of trust and obstruction of justice. The case
finally came to trial in 2009. The court was told about an
imaginative little expense scam. Senators are entitled to claim
mileage at a rate of 43.5 cents per kilometre. Lavigne would send
aides off on errands to Montreal and back. At roughly 400 kilometres,
each round trip would yield about $174.
Most of the time, Lavigne
claimed the mileage for himself, the court heard, although on
occasion, he would give an aide $50 for his/her trouble. (The judge
was ready to rule on the charges last November, but Lavigne's lawyer
did not appear in court. The verdict is now scheduled for February
Meanwhile, back in 2006, Lavigne
was expelled from the Liberal caucus. The announcement of his
expulsion was made by the interim leader, Bill Graham---which gives
us a sense of how long ago it was in political time: after Paul
Martin and before Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff.
In 2007, Lavigne was "suspended"
from the Senate, which by then had run up $80,000 in legal expenses
investigating his spending. An innocent citizen might think that
suspension is a pretty tough sanction. Since 2007, Lavigne has not
been permitted to attend the Senate or its committees or vote or
travel on Senate business. He is restricted to appearing in the
Senate one time per session---meaning
once, maybe twice, in a normal year.
Why, if he is suspended, is he
allowed to show up at all? The reason is simple. Under the arcane
rules of Parliament Hill, senators may claim their full salary if
they make an appearance just once in a session.
although he has not been permitted to do any Senate work for
three-plus years, Sen. Lavigne still draws his full $132,300 annual
salary. He still has an office. He still sends out his Christmas
cards. He still lists himself as a Liberal, and he still maintains a
parliamentary website that includes a picture of the man who made him
a senator, former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. And he still files
Some of those expense numbers
came out last week. Between Sept. 1 and Nov. 30, 2010---a three-month
period only---Lavigne ran up $17,708.46 in office expenses, $64.43 in
hospitality, $4,528.60 for accommodation in the capital, $5,882.92 in
travel between Ottawa and his home in Quebec, plus $2,605.05 for
An innocent citizen might ask
why a disgraced and suspended senator needs an office on Parliament
Hill, why taxpayers should pay for it, why he needs housing in
Ottawa, what travel he is doing on the public's dime---and why it
took three years for someone to notice.
These are questions that should
not be asked. They would only lead to bigger questions. Why, for
example, is the Harper government determined to spend an estimated
$21 billion on F-35 fighter aircraft that the country does not need
and cannot afford, at a time when the Americans are reducing their
commitment to that program? (X)
resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and
managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at
Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. He welcomes
comments at email@example.com.