Vancouver Sun: Dubious spending often comes from political veterans

Mar 26, 2014

The following article was published in the Vancouver Sun on March 25, 2014, and features comment from Beedie School of Business Professor Mark Wexler.

The revelation, then apology, Tuesday by Speaker of the legislature Linda Reid that her spending of public money in questionable ways did not stop with a few muffins hardly comes as a shock against a recent backdrop of misuse of public funds by politicians.

But it does fit a classic pattern that explains how and why such episodes seem to occur so often and what happens after they come to light, according to Mark Wexler, a professor of ethics at Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business.

“It’s a little more of that sense of entitlement which we’ve seen recently go amok in the Canadian Senate,” said Wexler.

Expense scandals dominated federal politics last fall and led to the suspension of senators Patrick Brazeau, Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin. But allegations of misused public funds have also hit Western Canada in recent weeks.

Of note are former Alberta premier Alison Redford’s lofty travel expenses to South Africa, and the revelation that Jenny Kwan, the MLA for Vancouver-Mount Pleasant, and her family billed thousands of dollars for vacations to the Portland Hotel Society, a non-profit group mired in a spending scandal of its own.

Despite the many examples of alleged political wrongdoing, Wexler said he didn’t think politicians entered their line of work to enrich themselves through dubious means. Rather, he said, some politicians slowly become less aware of the need for transparency in spending and find themselves on a slippery slope.

“There’s a tendency over time to let little things go,” he said. “It starts off small and grows to a trip.”

Wexler said some politicians learn that if they neglect to hand in a receipt for a small expense, nothing of consequence will happen. From there, things can get out of hand.

“This doesn’t mean all veteran players are suspect,” said Wexler. “It does mean that the more veteran you are the more likely it is you feel … somewhat required not to have to sweat the small stuff. That’s where this stuff grows.”

He pointed out that political spending scandals seem to hit people who have been in office a long time.

“It’s not the person who’s been there two years that does it,” he said, “it’s the person who has been there for 14.”

But the behaviour can spread. Young politicians might come into office and see veterans neglecting to hand in their receipts, and when they see others doing it, they see no reason not to follow suit, said Wexler.

Part of the problem, he said, is that politicians themselves are the bosses of the very regulators hired to catch wrongdoing.

“This doesn’t mean there’s wink wink, nod nod,” he said. “It’s just that largely small offences or small lapses are permitted to stand and over time those grow larger.”

But he added that even when outside auditors are brought in, they’re typically hired for such long contracts that the independent outsiders themselves become unwilling “to upset the apple cart for a $3,000 lack of receipts.”

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