Paper trails find irregularities with university spending. Increased transparency is discussed.
Louie Villanueva/the Gauntlet

U of C's transparency tested

Board chair Doug Black claims over $28,000 in 18 months

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The transparency of the University of Calgary and its expenses was tested after a mass audit found some discrepancies with chair of the Board of Governors Doug Black’s claims. The university will adopt a new provincial government policy and restructure current policies to alleviate such errors in the future. 

The internal audit, in which the irregularities were discovered, was conducted between January 1 and March 31, 2012.

Black spent over $28,000 of 
U of C funds on first-class business flights and five-star hotels. The error in Black’s payments fell outside of the U of C’s hospitality and travel expense policy, which stipulates that flights under five hours must be in economy class and only standard hotel rooms are allowed. When the errors were discovered by the university, Black reimbursed the university $5,343.86.

The audit was part of a quarterly review at the U of C that examines expense claims for the president and vice-presidents. In March, however, U of C president 
Elizabeth Cannon requested that the audit go beyond and also examine the expenses of the BOG.

“In March, I asked them to expand the scope of that protocol. This was done to improve governance overall,” said Cannon.

In July 2012, the U of C received a request for information under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act for expense reports submitted by the chair of the BOG from 2007 to the present. This uncovered more irregularities with travel expenses. Many speculate that these expenses come from taxpayers and students’ tuition.

However, Cannon said these expenses do not come from the pockets of students.

“We do not use student funds to operate expenses for the [BOG]. That is not the case either in principle or in the case of the board’s activities on behalf of the university,” said Cannon.

Canadian Taxpayers Federation vice-president communications Scott Hennig said that taxpayers and students are the biggest financial supporters of post-secondary institutions. 

“I don’t know where it was coming from if it wasn’t coming from taxpayers and students. Those are the two major funders of university,” said Hennig. “It’s not like the money was earmarked from some magic pot of gold somewhere that they found at the end of a rainbow saying use this for [BOG] expense reimbursement.”

Hennig said the U of C has good policies in place, but that the issues arose because the policies were not adhered to and stronger enforcement and more transparency is needed for the future.

“The issue for us clearly is not that the U of C is lacking in policy, it’s that they are lacking in transparency. There were certainly some expenses that were not in line with the U of C’s policies, or in line with what we would expect public dollars to be spent on,” said Hennig. 

On September 5, the Alberta provincial government introduced a new policy on expense disclosure designed to increase transparency and expense oversight for ministers, politicians and members of legislature. The new policy will be effective October 1. Its new requirements are meant to provide greater detail about travel and hospitality expenses. 

“Our policies are transparent, they are published and easily accessible,” said Cannon. “In terms of the expenses themselves, if you look at the new expense policy that the premier announced last week, part of that talks about making expenses publicly available. We are just looking at that new policy as we speak.”

The U of C will adopt this policy for its expense records.

According to a government of Alberta press release, “Premier Alison Redford’s government has announced a robust expense disclosure policy that broadens the scope of reporting, increases oversight and provides greater detail than any other province in Canada.”

Cannon said the university will continue to work hard to improve expense policies and the measures to enforce them. 

“In this particular instance, we certainly made some mistakes in some of the expenses that had been filed. We have made huge progress in terms of our overall financial controls on campus. We have committed to put some changes in place to ensure that we really mitigate the possibility of this happening again.”

According to Students’ Union president Hardave Birk, the resolution of the issue was handled appropriately, but the university should continue its efforts to expand transparency with its expenses.

“At the SU, we really want to see the university continue with the quarterly audits that they said they have started, and whenever mistakes are found we want to see those errors corrected,” said Birk. “Mistakes are going to be made, nobody can be perfect, but when someone does make a mistake, in this case with these expenses, we want to see the money reimbursed and the proper action be taken to make it right.”