City Council’s executive committee recommended today that councillors who receive external funding for trips outside the country should provide financial details. It’s a logical request, one often requested of people in businesses, universities, or virtually any organization with sensible governance. There are important reasons to do this; partly to keep the bean counters happy, but also to ensure there aren’t conflict of interest problems.
Rob Ford tore into councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong today for a trip he took to Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam in 2013. Ford said that Minnan-Wong claimed $1,265 for ‘meals and incidentals’ over 18 days- what wasn’t exposed was how much the Canada-Vietnam Friendship Association paid for his hotel and airfare (nor who paid for his visa service).
In an interview with the Toronto Star Minnan-Wong stated that only 7 days of the trip were expensed, and the rest of the time was personal travel. He then kicked into spin mode saying:
“Is the mayor complaining because taxpayers didn’t pay for expenses paid by the organizing group? If he’s complaining that a third party is paying for it, doesn’t that save the taxpayers money?”
Okay, so nothing to see here, right?
Who Is The Canada-Vietnam Friendship Association?
The first thing one notices when searching for information on the CVFA on the Internet is that, for a Toronto based organisation dedicated to building relationships and trade, they have an unfathomably small presence on the Internet. In fact, there only appears to be a single webpage dedicated to explaining their mission- there’s an online version of a handbook for a Canada-Vietnam trade mission they led in 2009. Beyond that (outside of stories about Minnan-Wong & Ford) their single largest presence on the web comes from press releases posted on websites run by the government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (including their embassies in Israel, Algeria, Bulgaria & Chile).
The CVFA came to public attention in 2010 when they partnered with the Mississauga Board of Chinese Professionals & Businesses, and the Vietnamese embassy to help lead a fundraiser for flood victims in central Vietnam. CVFA chair Chuck Do was at the press conference, it was their expectation they would raise $20,000.
The CVFA’s 2009 Trade Mission
The one document available online that gives us the most information on the CVFA is the handbook for their 2009 trade mission. The guide starts off with letters of support from (now retired) Liberal MP Peter Milliken, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, Toronto Mayor David Miller; and Conservative MP Patrick Brown, who was also one of the mission’s participants (it’s typical to have such letters in a document like this). Denzil Minnan-Wong attended as the “Council Sponsor of Toronto – Ho Chi Minh Friendship”.
Minnan-Wong’s expense report for this trip is published on the City of Toronto’s website, and it’s quite the interesting read. Like his 2013 trip, the CVFA paid for his airfare and hotel costs; they also paid for ‘registration fees’. And, same as now, he charged his ground transportation and “other” expenses to the city. The interesting part is that, in 2009 at least, Minnan-Wong charged the city a $100 USD per-diem for his 15 days of travel; the total came to $1,961.50 CAD.
The good news here is that Minnan-Wong’s charge for Vietnamese ground transportation is entirely reasonable, a (non rip-off) ride from the airport should cost about $10-15 USD (Your Humble Narrator has approved 100’s of international expense reports, this is the type of test I’d use to check they were accurate). The other good news is that his actual expenses were lower than his projected cost of $2,016 (but only by a few bucks, this is a potential red flag). There’s also no way of knowing if he was being fed and transported around by his Vietnamese hosts.
That said, this expense report tells us very little about how Minnen-Wong actually spent this money. It’s not necessary to issue receipts when one charges per-diem, it’s simply a $100 daily charge that one can then decide to use as they wish. Many people travel like per-diems, they’re less hassle, and you can usually keep any money that you’ve not spent.
One of the fun parts about travelling to Vietnam is that that everything is so inexpensive! A budget traveller could eat and drink (to a drunken stupor) in Vietnam for $15-20 a day; a taxi ride only costs a few dollars, a Big Mac meal is $4.40. Minnan-Wong’s $100 could go a long way in Vietnam- spending that much there is not different than Bev Oda buying a $16 glass of orange juice at the London Savoy. (Almost a month’s salary for some locals).
Why Is It Important To Report Externally Paid Expenses?
To those readers who’ve already figured this out, I apologize for having to state the bleeding obvious, but Minnen-Wong’s cavalier response to the question about his lack of reporting makes it necessary to do just that. In any democracy, it’s imperative for the voters to know who’s funding their politician’s junkets and how much they spend on them. This is particularly important when working internationally, even more so with organizations that are allied with foreign governments.
It’s not a conspiracy theory that foreign governments have tried to exert influence over Canadian politicians. Former CSIS Director Richard Fadden stated in 2010 that CSIS is “a bit worried in a couple of provinces that we have an indication that there’s some political figures who have developed quite an attachment to foreign countries,” and that there’s a risk that “decisions aren’t taken on the basis of the public good but on the basis of another country’s preoccupations”.The first step to ensuring these conflicts-of-interest don’t happen is to ask them to submit detailed reports.
[Note: There’s absolutely zero indication Minnan-Wong is under any external influence, this is only being used as an example of why we need good reporting.]
So, What Next?
The executive committee is absolutely right, it’s imperative that city councillors provide us with detailed information on the benefits they receive from external organizations; not only for international junkets, but for domestic too. Canadians (Torontonians in particular) no longer trust our politicians, and shouldn’t have to- it’s the information age, what we need is transparency.
Beyond just the numbers, it probably a good idea to ask for a written report. Travelling salespeople do this a lot; reporting to their managers who they met with, what was discussed, and what deals were made. It’s their manager’s job to examine the sales & expense reports and determine if the company is getting value for their money (and if the salesman is pitching someone else’s products on the side).
Thanks to the Internet, we can all be managers of our government now- all we need are the proper reports, it’s about time we had them.