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Saturday, August 29, 2009

CIDA staff spent big for first-class flights to aid forum


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OTTAWA - The head of Canada’s aid agency and two senior staff spent almost $40,000 on first-class airfare alone to attend a conference on aid effectiveness in west Africa.

Participants at the international forum in Accra, Ghana discussed how to get the "best bang for the buck," says a related press release.

But a review of travel and hospitality records filed by the Canadian International Development Agency shows staff routinely pay many times the cost of flying economy in favour of business class.

First-class flights are the accepted norm under Treasury Board guidelines for trips lasting nine hours or more.

Federal spending is under intense scrutiny, however, as the Harper government gets set to dive into the red with a big-spending budget Tuesday. A package of recession-fighting programs is expected to run up a deficit of $64 billion over two years - a dramatic end to 10 years of balanced budgets or surpluses.

Ottawa is planning such drastic measures as a slumping economy forces thousands of Canadians out of work.

Government expense reports say Margaret Biggs, president of the Canadian International Development Agency, paid $13,856.46 just for airfare to the Ghana conference last September. Accommodation cost $1,750.92.

The records indicate Biggs was in Ghana from Aug. 28 to Sept. 5 for a meeting scheduled Sept. 2-4. She also visited field projects, says an emailed response from agency spokeswoman Jo-Ann Purcell.

Another $805.44 was claimed for expenses described only as "other." Purcell clarified that $475 of that total was for medical shots, while another $330.44 was for "incidentals."

No further explanation was offered.

"All travel by CIDA employees is as per Treasury Board guidelines for long haul flights," Purcell said. "The president’s trip was 21 hours one-way."

An Internet search indicates the same trip in economy class costs about $1,400 return including taxes and fees - even if it’s booked within a week of departure.

A ticket for Stephen Wallace, vice-president of the Afghanistan Task Force, cost $10,496.26 for his trip to the conference where he acted as chairman. A ticket for Christine Hogan, vice-president of the agency’s strategic policy and performance branch, cost $15,117.69.

Purcell said the tickets were purchased through the Government Travel Service at the best rates possible at the time of booking.

Five more junior CIDA staff also attended the forum but their expenses aren’t automatically disclosed under Treasury Board rules. A working lunch for 19 government staff to discuss lessons learned - also billed to taxpayers - was catered Sept. 19 by a pizzeria in Gatineau, Que. for $143.83.

Kevin Gaudet of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation called business-class flights a "ridiculous expense."

"You shake your head and you go: ’Is there no way this could have been done cheaper?’

"Look, when an official goes and works for the government, they’re not working for the private sector. And they shouldn’t expect to be able to enjoy all of the benefits that some private-sector executives experience.

"Might that suck? Maybe. But it’s not their money. It’s our money."

Travel, entertainment, hospitality and consultation fees are the first things private-sector companies cut when times get tight, Gaudet said. He called on the federal government to follow that example .

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