A federal agency spent more than $300,000 on meals and refreshments in a two-month period, accounts show. The Canadian Institutes of Health Research did not reply to detailed written questions seeking an explanation of the billings. “Is this spam?” said David Coulombe, spokesperson for the agency.
Cabinet in an Inquiry Of Ministry tabled in the Commons disclosed the agency’s hospitality expenses totaled $300,185 from last May 14 to July 19. Expenses included $4,177 for meals at a one-day meeting of 22 people at Toronto’s Chelsea Hotel, the equivalent of $190 for each guest. Meal allowances for public servants on government business are only $90 per day for breakfast, lunch and supper.
The Canadian Institutes of Health Research have 120 staff. The grant-awarding agency is mandated to support medical research.
An unidentified employee charged $12 for a visit to Toronto’s Azure Lounge. The expense was billed as “executive recruitment”. Federal employees must obtain ministerial approval before charging taxpayers for alcohol, according to a 2017 Treasury Board Directive On Travel, Hospitality, Conference & Event Expenditures.
Employees also routinely hosted meals at Ottawa restaurants like the Baton Rouge Steakhouse & Bar, Victoria Trattoria, Play Food & Wine bar and restaurant, and Mamma Teresa Ristorante located six blocks from the agency’s headquarters. Staff spent a total $12,613 for meetings of “peer review committees” at Mamma Teresa at an average $53 a plate.
The Institutes of Health Research did not comment on whether charges included drinks. The restaurant sells $28 entrees and $11 Italian coffee.
The Italian eatery was once a favourite of former Privacy Commissioner George Radwanski, driven from office in 2003 for excessive spending. Radwanski dined at Mamma Teresa 14 times in two years, and rang up a total $12,200 in hospitality charges.
“He failed to exercise sound and reasonable judgment,” the Auditor General wrote in a 2003 Report On The Office Of The Privacy Commissioner. “He spent public money on travel and hospitality unreasonably and extravagantly without regard to prudence and probity. We found little value to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner and to taxpayers for expenditures on hospitality.”
Radwanski was acquitted on charges of breach of trust in 2009. He died of a heart attack in 2014 at 67.
Auditors noted federal employees may only bill taxpayers for meals and refreshments for “work sessions extending over meal hours or beyond normal working hours”: “It should not be provided during meetings of colleagues working closely together on a regular basis.”
The 2017 Treasury Board Directive states: “Hospitality can only be provided in situations where participation is required in operational meetings, training or events that extend beyond normal working hours.”