OTTAWA – The man who approved a $10,000 South Pacific trip for the president of the Old Port of Montreal says he’s uneasy about the expenses, and is waiting for more information to see whether they were justified.
And former Old Port chairman Bernard Roy notes that he turned down one of president Claude Benoit’s other spending requests — a training course costing approximately $15,000.
Roy was the chairman of the board of directors at the Crown corporation at the time that Benoit took a trip to Australia and New Zealand in late 2008 and early 2009.
Benoit charged the Old Port of Montreal $10,100 for 12 days of work during a month-long personal trip in December and January. The trip and other expenses are being scrutinized by the auditor general and a House of Commons committee.
“Obviously in retrospect, and reading what has been written and her testimony, I’m not completely at ease but then again the major caveat … is a lot will depend on the type of work she did and what did she produce,” Roy said in an interview.
“Was it a pretext or is there meat in there, and is there anything for instance that has been accepted by the Old Port to launch an exhibition?”
She has defended the trip by saying she was gathering information that was of direct benefit to the corporation, she produced seven reports totalling 100 pages and the spending on the travel was approved.
The current chairman and the board of directors have said they have complete confidence in her, and have accused the media of a smear job. Benoit and the Old Port have noted that all her spending went through the proper channels of approval, and followed all relevant rules.
Details of her expenses were first published by the QMI news service in the Journal de Montreal.
But Benoit did not meet with any local officials as she travelled from site to site. The Crown has noted that she visited a Star Wars exhibition in Sydney that the Old Port was in negotiations to bring to Montreal.
The Old Port paid for some of her cruise ship travel from city to city, and for a portion of her business-class plane tickets, booked using a travel companion’s bank loyalty points. The friend was repaid based on the market value of the tickets at the time, Old Port spokeswoman Nadia Paquet said in an email.
“This way of doing (things) did not cost more to the taxpayers than if the ticket was purchased directly by the Old Port of Montreal Corp. from its travel agency,” said Paquet.
“Claude Benoit acknowledges, however, that the means of purchase could have been more direct.”
Roy says he was unaware that the trip had been booked months in advance, that the tickets were first booked on points, and he has not seen the material that Benoit produced upon her return. Neither has current board chairman Gerry Weiner — the reports were circulated among Benoit’s management team.
Around the same time that Benoit had asked for approval for the trip, she also approached Roy about taking a course in corporate governance through Laval University. Roy says the course would have cost around $15,000.
“I told her that was absolutely out of the question,” Roy said. “Of course, she was disappointed because I said no to her request, and that was the end of it.”
Benoit declined a request for interview, but Paquet confirmed that the president had proposed the course “for the purpose of developing her knowledge of corporate governance.”
“Given the costs involved and the difficulties inherent in a busy schedule, it was decided to postpone this course,” said Paquet, adding that Benoit dropped her pursuit of the course.
Roy says he’s not drawing any conclusions on Benoit’s judgment, and always found she managed the Old Port’s affairs in a stringent manner, with the Crown corporation operating within its budgets.
The Commons ethics committee is set to examine the seven reports that Benoit produced following the Australia-New Zealand tour. Benoit was ordered to produce them to the committee by Tuesday.