Speaker of the Legislature Linda Reid has racked up tens of thousands of dollars in questionable expenses, including $48,412 for a custom touch-screen computer terminal in front of her chair in the legislature chamber.
The expenses, obtained by The Vancouver Sun, show Reid has embarked on numerous spending projects at the legislature during a time of fiscal austerity that has seen most government ministries hit with frozen or reduced budgets.
That spending includes $13,449 to convert half the legislature library into a MLA-only TV lounge — with a $733 “food display case/rack” for coffee, muffins and other free snacks for MLAs — and $13,965 for new drapes at the legislature dining room, according to the documents.
The computer terminal proved particularly expensive, with Reid billing taxpayers $4,500 in design fees alone. The final product had custom wood panelling to help it match the historical and ornate design of the rest of the House.
Reid, the six-term Liberal MLA for Richmond East, was named Speaker of the Legislature in July. Though largely a ceremonial job, the Speaker also acts as chairperson of the legislative assembly’s $70-million annual budget, approving MLA salaries, expenses, travel, security, Hansard and other building amenities.
Shortly after being appointed, Reid hired her election campaign manager Susan Wells as executive assistant. Wells lives in Richmond and Reid confirmed she has been billing the legislature for hotel stays and expenses. She’s also eligible to bill meals up to $61 a day and travel costs, The Sun has learned.
Exactly how much money Wells has expensed remains unclear.
Though Reid’s office provided some financial figures, she has twice refused written requests for a detailed accounting of how much Wells has billed. Reid did not return an interview request Monday.
Two other employees in the Speaker’s office are based in Victoria, without such expenses.
Though MLAs must disclose a detailed account of their per diems, housing and travel expenses every four months — NDP MLAs disclose monthly — Reid said in a brief emailed statement Friday that the public should wait until next year’s public accounts report to see a total figure for Wells’ expenses above $5,000.
That practice of partial annual expense disclosure was just one of many lax financial practices legislature officials and politicians pledged to change after they were sharply criticized by former B.C. auditor general John Doyle in 2012.
Doyle audited the legislature’s books and concluded they were in such disarray he was unable to determine if any money was missing.
In response, then-Speaker Bill Barisoff promised open meetings of the legislature’s management committee, as well as better and more frequent disclosure of expenses. Barisoff retired last May.
Reid, B.C.’s current longest-serving MLA, took the Speaker’s office with a public pledge of improving transparency and accountability.
Critics slammed the expenses.
“Talk about a frivolous use of taxpayer dollars,” said Jordan Bateman, B.C. director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. “We don’t pay taxes for frills and gimmicks for the Speaker of the House.”
Reid should be leading by example during tough economic times and curbing her spending, said Bateman. Flying her campaign manager over for a patronage job is “a terrible waste of money,” he said.
“If your job is to work for the Speaker, then be willing to relocate to Victoria,” said Bateman.
Expense records show Reid also spent $6,377 upgrading her legislative office, including $3,677 to re-cover her chairs and $2,700 for new drapes.
Some of Reid’s renovation projects have improved the accessibility of the legislature, including for the three MLAs who use wheelchairs.
She spent $42,949 on a wheelchair ramp to the legislature library late last year, because the library elevator was too small and frequently out-of-service.
The new wheelchair ramp provides access to the new library TV lounge. The old Ned DeBeck lounge for MLAs on the top floor of the library could not be reached by wheelchair.
“I don’t have any issue with that,” NDP house leader John Horgan said of the lounge upgrades and wheelchair ramp.
Reid had previously said the MLA-only TV lounge was not going to cost taxpayers any money. But expense forms show the bill actually included $5,387 for televisions and electronics, and $3,652 for furniture. A new counter cost $3,675.
Horgan said the lounge doesn’t need three flatscreen televisions.
It’s a “legitimate concern” to question Reid’s decision to hire her out-of-town campaign manager, said Horgan, but overall she’s far more transparent about spending money than previous Speakers.
Reid also spent $6,278 to re-locate a blue-curtain interview zone for media that was disrupted by the new wheelchair ramp.
Other expenses appear at odds with Finance Minister Mike de Jong’s instructions in December that the legislature management committee curtail expenditures as the province seeks to hold onto a slim surplus in its provincial budget.
MLAs on the Legislative Assembly Management Committee will ask the Speaker for answers at a meeting next week, de Jong said in an interview Monday.
“There is no question that we exist in a time across government, including the operation of this parliament, that we are counting every dollar that is expended,” he said. “I’m certain the Speaker will next week explain what the rationale for the expenditures were.”
Reid has also billed the legislature for upgrades to her constituency office in Richmond, though she declined to provide an amount. Those upgrades were recommended by the RCMP as part of a security audit, she said. The RCMP said Monday it could neither confirm nor deny that it had conducted an audit or recommended the office upgrades.
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