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Secretive Commons board appeals Federal Court finding in NDP satellite saga

Last Updated May 31, 2016 at 6:10 pm EST

OTTAWA – The secretive committee that polices House of Commons spending has decided it has “no choice” but to appeal a Federal Court decision in the NDP satellite office saga.

Just last week, New Democrats were cheering the decision to allow an affidavit challenged by the attorney general, the Speaker of the House of Commons and the committee, known as the board of internal economy.

In the affidavit, University of Sherbrooke professor Maxime Saint-Hilaire noted the satellite controversy is not a matter of privilege, addressing a much greater question at the core of the case: do courts have jurisdiction in parliamentary matters?

At the core of the satellite office saga is the allegation that the NDP used parliamentary funds for non-parliamentary purposes when it pooled offices in Toronto, Montreal and Quebec City — an allegation the party strenuously denies.

It is now relying on its party funds to legally challenge a decision from the board to order 68 MPs — many of whom were defeated in October’s federal election — to repay $2.7 million in parliamentary resources.

Heather Bradley, the director of communications for the Speaker’s office, said in a statement the board now believes the court “erred in law and created a dangerous precedent” by allowing the affidavit to be admitted.

Government House leader Dominic LeBlanc, who sits on the board, added Tuesday the body acted on the advice of its lawyer, Guy Pratte, who is “one of the most respected and experienced litigators in Canada.”

“The decision … was not rendered by a judge, but by an official of the court,” LeBlanc said.

“The advice from Mr. Pratte was that this should be taken before a judge, so with his experience and the work he’s done, far be it from me to question somebody of his ability and the advice we received.”

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said the move will only create further delays in a political battle that originally played out behind closed doors because board proceedings are shielded from the public eye.

“These are all dilatory tactics,” Mulcair said outside the Commons.

The Liberals are intentionally applying the brakes in the case, Mulcair added.

“We’ve been clear all along we’ve respected all the rules,” he said. “We know that. The problem is, they know that and that’s why they are stalling.”

NDP national director Karl Belanger, who has stressed it is important to support former and current MPs in their legal fight, noted Tuesday the appeal is a waste of taxpayers’ money.

Bradley has not been able to indicate how much money has been spent to date on Pratte’s legal fees.

In March, The Canadian Press reported Prime Minister Justin Trudeau intervened in a settlement that would have prevented the proceedings from playing out in court. LeBlanc insisted at the time Trudeau was not involved despite multiple sources who said it was, in fact, the prime minister himself who put an end to negotiations.

The board of internal economy is the only body responsible for addressing the NDP’s satellite offices and this misuse of public funds, he added.

New Democrats also say Commons administrators grossly inflated the amount of money contributed from their office budgets towards the salaries of satellite employees.

Former Toronto MP Dan Harris was originally told to pay more than $140,000, but late last year was effectively cleared by the Commons’ chief financial officer.

Ex-Montreal MP Isabelle Morin was also on the hook to repay $169,117 in salary paid to an employee, but her bill was reduced to below $30,000 because the employee worked most of the time in her riding office, not the Montreal party office.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, who is set to walk away from the helm of the party when a successor is named in September or October 2017, also faces of a sizable bill of more than $400,000.

—with files from Joan Bryden and Joanna Smith

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