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Brazeau fights order to repay disputed Senate housing allowance claims

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

OTTAWA - Patrick Brazeau insists he broke no rules when he claimed a generous Senate housing allowance and he's exploring all options to overturn an order to pay the money back.

But the government's Senate leader, Marjory LeBreton, warned Tuesday that the money will be "seized" if it's not immediately reimbursed.

Brazeau, a one-time Conservative senator who now sits as an independent, argued Tuesday that last week's order to reimburse the Senate flies in the face of an independent audit, which concluded that the rules regarding the housing allowance are unclear.

Because of that lack of clarity, Deloitte auditors were unable to say categorically whether Brazeau, Conservative Sen. Mike Duffy or Liberal Mac Harb had violated the rules.

Nevertheless, the Senate's internal economy committee last week ordered Brazeau and Harb to repay their allowances, arguing that the rules are "amply clear" and "unambiguous."

The committee made no reference to clear rules when it came to Duffy, however. Duffy voluntarily repaid more than $90,000 in allowance and related living expense claims in March, blaming confusing rules and paperwork for his mistake in claiming his Prince Edward Island cottage as his primary residence.

Both LeBreton and Prime Minister Stephen Harper have echoed Duffy's claim that the rules are confusing, citing the Deloitte finding.

Brazeau cited the same Deloitte finding to argue that there's no reason why he should repay his housing allowance.

"The Deloitte report in no way finds anything untoward regarding the claims and documents filed by Sen. Brazeau," said a written statement released Tuesday by Brazeau's office.

"As a result, Sen. Brazeau will be seeking greater clarification and will explore all options to have this (repayment) determination overturned by applying the current policies, rules and regulations pertaining to this matter, including calling a public meeting of the Senate committee on internal economy to explain their decision."

Harb, who was ordered to repay $51,500, has indicated he intends to fight the matter in court.

But if Brazeau and Harb don't repay voluntarily, LeBreton appeared to suggest Tuesday that the Senate will garnishee their salaries.

"Our government made a commitment to ensure that inappropriate expenses would be repaid, that the rules governing these expenses are appropriate and to report back to the public on these matters," LeBreton said in an email.

"(Harb and Brazeau) must immediately repay inappropriately claimed expenses or the Senate will seize the funds."

Brazeau's statement said he's been ordered to repay $34,619. However, LeBreton last week pegged the sum at almost $49,000. She did not immediately respond to a request to clarify the discrepancy but her figure may include interest.

The allowance is meant to compensate senators whose primary residence is more than 100 kilometres outside Ottawa, requiring them to maintain a secondary residence in the national capital region while at work in the Senate.

Duffy and Harb claimed the allowance although they've both lived in Ottawa for years, long before their appointment to the Senate. Brazeau claimed his father's home in Maniwaki, Que., as his primary residence, although he shared a home with his girlfriend just across the river from the capital in Gatineau, Que.

The Deloitte audit found that Brazeau spent only 10 per cent of his time in Maniwaki over a two-year period. Harb was found to have spent 21 per cent of his time at his claimed primary residence near Pembroke, Ont., while Duffy spent about 30 per cent of his time at his claimed primary residence in P.E.I.

Still, Brazeau said he met all four required indicators — producing a driver's licence, health-care card, income-tax returns and a signed statement of where he votes in provincial and federal elections — that prove Maniwaki is his primary residence.

"Furthermore, the report states no false claims were made by Sen. Brazeau," his statement said.

By contrast, Deloitte found Duffy met only one of the four indicators — his driver's licence. He did not have a P.E.I. health care card, his income-tax return didn't list a P.E.I. address, and he didn't provide sufficient information to determine where he votes.

Moreover, Deloitte found Duffy had improperly claimed just over $1,000 in per diems for working in Ottawa while he was actually on vacation in Florida.

Harb met none of the four indicators, Deloitte found.

Brazeau, who was kicked out of the Conservative caucus after being charged with assault and sexual assault in February, hinted that he's been the victim of a double standard.

He questioned whether all senators "were treated with same scrutiny, rules, regulations and definitions" as he was.

LeBreton, meanwhile, declined Tuesday to explain why she won't release a legal opinion she obtained that shows Duffy is constitutionally entitled to sit in the Senate.

The Constitution requires that a senator be "resident" in the province he or she was appointed to represent.

LeBreton told CBC radio over the weekend that she has a legal opinion which shows "there is no doubt whatsoever about (Duffy's) legitimacy to sit in the Senate." She noted that the Constitution does not define residency, other than to require that senators own property in their home provinces.

In an email to The Canadian Press on Tuesday, LeBreton said she relies for advice, as a minister of the Crown, from the Privy Council Office — the bureaucratic arm of the Prime Minister's Office which vets all Senate appointments.

NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus wrote LeBreton on Tuesday, asking that she make her legal opinion public.

"I am sure that you will agree that the Senate is facing an unprecedented legitimation crisis. It is incumbent upon the Conservative-dominated Senate to show accountability to the Canadian people," Angus wrote.

He also asked that the internal economy committee release the legal advice it sought in February on Duffy's residency.

Initially, the committee was widely thought to be seeking advice on whether Duffy met the constitutional residency requirement.

However, the committee subsequently clarified that it has no mandate or jurisdiction to examine constitutional issues; it was seeking legal advice on Duffy's residency strictly as it pertains to his claim for the housing allowance.

That advice has not yet been received by the committee.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/the-canadian-press/130514/brazeau-fights-order-repay-disputed-senate-housing-allowance