Senate shoots down senator's plan to use office budget for harassment victims' legal fees

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Senate shoots down senator's plan to use office budget for harassment victims' legal fees

Senate shoots down senator's plan to use office budget for harassment victims' legal fees

The senator who planned to use part of her office budget to cover the legal bills of staffers harassed by members of the Red Chamber will have to find another way to offer that sort of support, a spokesperson for the Senate told CBC News Monday.

The use of public funds to pay the legal fees of a third party is not permissible under Senate rules — and if an expense claim were to be filed for such a request it would be rejected.

Independent Manitoba Sen. Marilou McPhedran said last week she would use part of her budget allocated for research and hiring contractors to retain Ottawa-based human rights lawyer Anne Levesque to provide counsel to those past and current staffers who have faced harassment in the Senate, allowing them to take on their abusers.

McPhedran set up a confidential email account so these staffers could reach out to her directly. She offered to serve as a sort of interlocutor between survivors of such abuse and Levesque, or to simply lend an ear to those who wanted to talk about their experiences in the Red Chamber.

"Senate policies provide that senators may retain the services of contractors to support them in their parliamentary functions. This would not include paying legal fees for third parties," Alison Korn, a spokesperson for the Senate's internal economy committee, which polices expense claims among other responsibilities, said in an emailed statement to CBC News.

"We have asked Sen. McPhedran to clarify exactly how Senate funds will be used for the purposes of her endeavour."

The rules are quite clear: Senate resources are to be used by senators for the sole purpose of carrying out their parliamentary functions.

Parliamentary functions are defined in the Senate Administrative Rules (SARS) as "duties and activities related to the position of a senator, wherever performed, including public and official business and partisan matters, but excluding activities related to the election of a member of the House of Commons during an election under the Canada Elections Act; or the private business interests of a senator or a member of a senator's family or household."

McPhedran said she was told Saturday the Senate would not allow her to use her office budget to cover the costs of a legal consultation.

McPhedran said she still believes she has the right to use her Senate resources for this purpose. "If I had the time, and if I were prepared to step away from the promises I made to survivors, then I'd go back into full appeal mode, because I think they're wrong," she told CBC News.

'It's not a problem'

"But it's not a problem," she said, adding Levesque has now offered to conduct the initial legal consultations pro bono.

"They're not going to mess it up for all those survivors out there.

"We've already posted on social media and I'm reaching out to everyone who's contacted me through the confidential hotline, and I'm saying to everyone, 'My promises to you will be kept. If you want to meet with me in confidence, of course you can. If you want me to facilitate any legal consultation on your behalf, as was promised, that will be delivered.'

"My priority is to create safe, confidential space with legal advice from an expert that is dedicated to survivors who have experienced workplace harassment in the Senate of Canada. That's my priority, and I'm not going to be diverted from it by this little group that has so much power inside the Senate."

The "little group" to which McPhedran referred is the committee's three-member steering committee, which adjudicates disputes or rules on the admissibility of an expense claim. It consists of Sen. Larry Campbell, an Independent from B.C., Sen. Denise Batters, a Conservative from Saskatchewan, and Sen. Jim Munson, a Liberal from Ontario.

'A number' of complainants have surfaced

McPhedran said she already has received emails from a "a number" of people who have faced harassment in the Senate workplace.

"I'm in the process of communicating with four different individuals who have indicated they do want to meet. This takes time. There's a huge amount of distrust out there," she said.

"This is not a numbers game. This is about deeply systemic issues that will not be fully addressed unless survivors have some resources and safe confidential space to discuss their experiences."

A Senate spokesperson said the upper house takes the issue of workplace harassment seriously, and there has been a policy in place since 1993. A subcommittee of the internal economy committee is now reviewing the policy with the aim of updating some of its content.

This is not the first time the internal economy committee and McPhedran have disagreed over the admissibility of an expense. The committee blocked her efforts to expense a trip to Iceland for a meeting of female parliamentarians and refused to pay for a trip the senator took to her home province of Manitoba last fall.