Blog by John Miller

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The fat cats

No journalist should ever be appointed to the Senate.

I could have told Stephen Harper that years ago, before he decided that Mike Duffy would make a dandy senator representing P.E.I. (which is only his home address when he's at the cottage) and Pamela Wallin would be just a peachy choice to represent her native Saskatchewan (which is actually even further away from her current home address in downtown Toronto).

Do you know where your full-time home is? I certainly hope so. A senator not knowing that is kind of alarming. After all, they're supposed to be qualified to sit in what we call the chamber of sober second thought! But it's worse than just being forgetful. It's against Senate rules. You're supposed to have a full-time home in the province you represent. If you do, you can collect expense money to cover the time you're in Ottawa on business. If you don't, you're not supposed to be in the Senate at all.

But that's not why I don't like to see journalists appointed. I don't like to see them appointed because journalists are hard-wired to, well, play their expense accounts like fiddles. They're virtuosos at it.

I know: For several years as a senior manager of the Toronto Star, my job was to approve expense accounts. Have I got stories.

A favourite technique, which perhaps journalists are responsible for inventing, is the double dip. Let's say you are on assignment for your newspaper in Paris (back in the day, Canadian newspapers actually sent reporters to places like that. Honest they did). So you sit down for a few drinks with colleagues from other papers at the end of a long day, and what do you do? You ask for duplicate receipts and everyone claims they bought everyone drinks as entertainment. Who's going to find out?

The slippery slope is only starting. You're entitled to submit an expense account to your paper for air travel, hotel, meals and incidentals. But let's say a local service club invites you to give a talk about the speed of change in modern Europe, and they're willing to pay a fee and expenses. So you send in duplicates of your hotel and meal bills and pocket the money. No one's the wiser.

Journalists used to justify this by saying they were underpaid, and expense account money was handed out grudgingly and parsimoniously by rat bastard managers like me. That's all very true.

But what do you think happens when long-time journalists are tapped on the shoulder for public office and get the keys to the bloody bank? Do you think they put aside the old habits, or do they sharpen their pencils in quest of grander lucre? All of a sudden they're in expense account heaven: seemingly limitless funds, sometimes without the need for receipts, and almost always with no formal scrutiny. That's the way it's been until recently at the Senate of Canada.

Duffy and Wallin are under scrutiny after a Senate audit revealed evidence of double dipping and excessive travel. We're talking up to $600,000 for Duffy over the past three years. Wallin is just coming under the microscope for spending more than $321,000 on travel during that period, and none of it was to Saskatchewan, where she claims her primary residence is.  She actually spent another $30,238 to fly there -- a figure that only adds up to about five executive class round trips. Five trips home in three years? That ain't her primary residence, folks.

On the other hand, if you phone P. Wallin at her toney condo in downtown Toronto, you hear her voice direct you to her cell phone in Ottawa. Her full-time residence seems to be at 20 Scrivener Square, not far-off Wadena. That seems to mean she should not be sitting in the Senate representing Saskatchewan.

But back to my point: Do I think it's a coincidence both Duffy and Wallin are former journalists? No, I do not.

My favourite expense account story was when a reporter was sent overseas to open a news bureau in a very expensive city. He threw a party to welcome himself, and invited a who's who of local government, diplomats and fellow journalists. He catered it lavishly, of course. A few hours before guests arrived, the heavily laden table collapsed (or so his story went). The food had to be replaced, and a strange claim for a "gratuity of $750 CDN" turned up on the expense account. A gratuity to whom, I asked. The caterer. But why, when he overloaded the table so much it collapsed. The answer shall go down in expense account history: Compensation for loss of face.

Then there was the correspondent who bought an expensive yacht just before being recalled, and the paper had to pay thousands to ship it home.

Wait a minute. That was the same guy.

Is this the same mentality that Duffy and Wallin are bringing to their present travails? I have no way of knowing, but it certainly seems consistent with their other actions -- dodging accountability, claiming a misunderstanding of the rules, and paying some of it back using other people's money.

How soon they forget. What fun they would have had as journalists covering fat-cat misconduct as brazen as this.