There was one brief mention at a committee meeting three years ago of the big extra benefit that was being paid to conflict-of-interest commissioner Paul Fraser.
But for the most part, committee discussions and official reports have been opaque when it comes to the belated payments in lieu of a pension that have been paid out and are continuing.
Mention was made at a September 2013 legislative assembly management committee by legislature clerk Craig James of an additional payment made to the commissioner “for a pension that was never honoured during his first term.”
He started the job on a five-year term in 2008 under the understanding a pension benefit would be paid, but it never materialized. That led to a protracted exchange of correspondence. Eventually, the politicians agreed to pay it retroactively.
Then-NDP house leader John Horgan raised some questions about it at the committee meeting and was told there was a written legal opinion about the legislature’s liability and its obligation.
As noted here Saturday, Fraser got a payment of $337,230 over and above his part-time salary of $193,491 in fiscal 2013. It was paid to cover the five years during which the benefit he negotiated didn’t appear.
In the 2015-16 fiscal year, he got another $214,200 extra payment, on top of his $276,363 salary, for what, by then, had been changed to a full-time job. By that point, Fraser was past the age-71 cut-off, after which public-sector pension plans prohibit paying into pensions. So the payment is considered a benefit in lieu of a pension.
The authority for that payment appears to have been made at a closed-door meeting of the management committee, made up of MLAs from both sides of the house.
Both the additional payments were made public only as payments by the legislature to suppliers. The payments were not reflected in the commissioner’s budget until last week. Fraser appeared before the finance committee and mentioned the pension-benefit issue.
“All of that has to do with the fact that there were promises made and promises that couldn’t, for a variety of reasons that were no one’s fault, be kept when I was appointed,” he said.
His budget proposal for the committee’s approval noted an “unexpected event.” That was the legislative assembly management committee’s decision to charge the continuing makeup payments to his operating budget.
His three-year budget plan for the office said the payments will total $79,100 in 2016-17, $80,600 in 2017-18 and an extra $900 in 2018-19, the last year of his second term.
That total of $160,000, in addition to the two previous lump-sum payments, will add up to $712,030 in extra-taxable benefits, covering an anticipated 10-year period.
Other financial changes in the commissioner’s office have cut some costs, but his current budget request stands at $743,000, up from $701,000.
Fraser was an eminent private lawyer before being hired. He’s entitled to ask for whatever he feels he needs. But there’s no sign of anyone trying to negotiate down. And the system — tightened up since 2008 — was so loose that the legislature managed to ignore or forget that part of the deal it had agreed to, until his continuing objections forced the management committee to reckon with it.
Which accounts for the considerable makeup benefits being paid to him. They were listed publicly in obscure parts of the financial reports, if you know exactly where to look. But there wasn’t a full disclosure of the gap in the understanding of his benefits package, or the remarkably expensive makeup effort.
It has also exposed some differentials in the benefits of the other independent officers of the legislature. Three of them, the chief electoral officer, the Ombudsperson and the information and privacy commissioner, get credited with 1.5 years of pensionable service for every one year served. Fraser’s payout was calculated on that basis.
Others, like the representative for children and youth and the auditor general, don’t.
The legislature needs a straightforward contract for the whole bunch of them, so everyone, including the taxpayer, knows the deal.