Wednesday, May 28, 2008

On fabrications

The Star reports that the Cons continue to have just as much disdain for facts when it comes to relatively small issues the as they do with respect to their current scandals. This time, it's expense records that look to have been altered without any reasonable explanation to avoid the Star's criticism:
The Conservative government has twice altered expense records for international trips after the Star questioned their high cost.

The records in a publicly available website were changed – thousands of dollars removed in one case and a lengthy journey shortened in another – for trips by then-foreign affairs minister Maxime Bernier and Brian Jean, parliamentary secretary to the minister of transport...

In Bernier's case, the Star raised questions about a report on the Foreign Affairs website showing he spent $22,573 on airfare for a trip to Laos via Paris to attend a two-day conference last fall. The Star found he could have travelled there comfortably for $7,000.

Within a few days of the story's publication on May 16, the expense report on the website was changed. The airfare now reads $13,919. It's unclear why it was changed.

Bernier's former spokesperson, Neil Hrab, suggested a previous office manager in the minister's office had made a clerical error. Hrab would not release any documents and said the Star could make a request under the federal access-to-information legislation.

While Bernier's airfare mysteriously dropped, the $18,500 airfares of his "policy adviser" and "senior policy adviser" did not. Bernier resigned from cabinet this week.

Another series of expense reports questioned by the Star involved Jean, the Tory MP from Alberta, who is the parliamentary secretary to Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon. The Star raised Jean's 15-day trip to Paris last September for a five-day conference, the 23rd World Road Association Congress. Jean's flight was listed at $7,515, his accommodation at $4,969 and his meals at $1,412. Jean's assistant travelled with him on a much cheaper flight – $1,848 – and stayed for only eight days. Her expense report was not altered.

Several weeks ago, the Star asked the transport department why Jean took 15 days to attend a five-day conference in Paris. It took a while, but spokesperson Karine White said the "finance department" had made a clerical error. She said four days had inadvertently been added – on paper – to Jean's trip. It was 11 days and one involved an overnight flight.

The records on the website were changed immediately. The airfare remains the same; the dollar value of meals went up slightly; but the main change was that with fewer days on the trip, the per-night hotel cost for Jean rose from $355 to about $500 (hotel rates for Canadian government officials are typically discounted by about 25 per cent).
The most charitable possible interpretation is that the Cons were careless in reporting the listed expenses to the point where it took the Star's attention for them to actually set matters right. Which would itself offer plenty of reason for concern that the Cons' public disclosures are less than accurate at the best of times.

But particularly based on the Cons' refusal to provide any documentation to support either the original numbers or the altered ones, it looks equally possible that they simply revised the reports to include numbers which they figured would appear more acceptable. And if so, then a seemingly systematic policy of throwing poor explanations at the wall in hopes that something will stick would seem to offer ample reason to doubt anything the Cons have to say.

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