Thursday, November 28, 2013

That was awfully ballsy James!

Flaherty submitted pre-redacted expense claims in apparent violation of information law

Glen McGregor
Wednesday, November 27, 2013
Former Information Commissioner John Reid says Finance Minister Jim Flaherty should not be making changes to his own documents. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

OTTAWA — Finance Minister Jim Flaherty submitted travel expense claims that had been heavily redacted, with numerous “personal” items blacked out from his hotel bills before they were processed for reimbursement, in an apparent violation of the federal information law.

Eight of the hotel bills expensed to the Department of Finance by Flaherty in 2013 were altered to obscure the descriptions and prices of numerous line items charged to his rooms — items for which Flaherty was not paid back.

The total amounts of these bills were also blacked out, with new figures written in by hand, making it impossible to calculate the value of the redacted entries.

The changes to the documents, performed by Flaherty or an employee, appear to have been made before they were submitted to departmental finance officials.

The hotel bills were obtained by the Citizen under the Access to Information Act but the alterations are distinct from those made legally by Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) officials.

The ATIP staff denote redactions with a different method — grey boxes rather than black marker — to conceal private information that is exempt from release under the open-records law. Each redaction has to be explained by citing the section of the Access law used to justify it.

The black marker redactions to Flaherty’s bill do not cite any exemptions.

Flaherty’s office says the items were blacked out because he voluntarily chose to forgo reimbursement for them, as they were “personal” in nature.

“The redacted lines are personal items for which the minister does not seek reimbursement from taxpayers,” said press secretary Marie Prentice.

“They are redacted on the bills to simply indicate to officials they are not to be reimbursed.”

Flaherty’s office did not respond to requests to see the unredacted documents on his hotel bills.
When submitting expense claims, Flaherty may have been mindful of the scandal over former cabinet colleague Bev Oda and a hotel bill showing she had charged taxpayers for a $16 glass on orange juice while on official business in Europe.

Former information commissioner John Reid says Flaherty should not be making changes to his own documents.

“He’s not the one that makes the determination of what is private or not,” Reid said.

“It’s not his responsibility and he certainly shouldn’t have done it.”

ATIP officials must determine what can and cannot be excluded from release, he said.

The hotel bills, Reid said, are government documents because they were created in the course of government business. That means the entire documents are covered by the Access law, even though Flaherty chose not to claim some of the items as expenses.

Among the hotel bills that Flaherty redacted was a three-night stay in January at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Flaherty’s bill from the Sunstar Hotels Davos lists three $544 per night room charges, but eight items charged to his room, along with their prices, have been manually blacked out.

Several of these items appear to have descriptions that are three of four letters long and begin with either a “B,” “P” or “R.”

Also excised was the original total cost charged to Flaherty’s American Express card, with a recalculated amount written in by hand. Even the breakdown of Switzerland’s value-added tax has been blacked out and recalculated to exclude the items.

Prentice would not say what items were charged to this room or any of the others.

“Personal items are personal, that’s why he paid for them personally,” she wrote in a followup email.

Also subject to manual redaction was the bill from Flaherty’s two-night stay at the St. Regis hotel in Bangkok in March, with eight of the 14 items charged to the credit card obscured with black marker.

At the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Hong Kong on the same trip to Asia, Flaherty charged $30 worth of ironing and dry cleaning to his $360 per night room, but the description and amount of another item on the bill was blacked out by hand.

The total value of the bill charged to his credit card was also blacked out, with a new amount written in by hand.

And again in March, at the Pan Pacific Hotel in Vancouver, seven of 12 items on Flaherty’s bill were blacked out.

There were similar black outs on bills from hotels in Belgium, France, Bermuda and Montreal.

Only one of these redactions is visible: Staying at the Millennium Hotel in London, England, Flaherty crossed out the £1.50 cost of the Financial Times newspaper that had been applied to his room charge.

A bill submitted by Flaherty for a January lunch at Ottawa steak house Hy’s was also redacted, with two line items obscured. Also on the receipt are three orders listed as “Caesar/tips” at a cost of $28.95 each.


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