Senate Travel Expenses

The complainant, Senator Donald Plett, felt the information about his travel expenses and those of his wife were misrepresented online and on television. He thought the journalists had deliberately chosen a time frame when his wife had travelled most frequently, and that his record of moderation was ignored. Overall he thought the piece was biased. While there was one error that was corrected, the senator was treated as all the others featured in the work, and the reporter made it clear that no rules were actually broken.

This review has been modified by the removal of a paragraph which stated Senator Plett only used three flight passes in his travel. In fact six out of his eight flights were paid for by passes. The overall totals are accurate.

COMPLAINT

On February 12 and 13, 2014, CBC News did a series of stories about the travel expenses incurred by Conservative senators, both for themselves and their spouses, for the five-week period of October 14 to November 17, 2013. The data was based on public accounts voluntarily published by most Conservative senators for the last quarter of the year.

The story was first reported on The National, and a more detailed version was published online. The article was entitled “Tory Senators expense business class flights with spouses.” The article focused on you and two other senators because in the period examined you and your colleagues were ranked the highest spenders. This is how the story began:

The top-spending Conservative senators routinely purchased high-priced business class airfares and repeatedly used public money to bring spouses with them on trips to Ottawa, even as the Senate expense scandal was in full swing last fall.

The article went on to reveal the expenses each of you had incurred. Senator Scott Tannas had spent more, and Senator Don Meredith used business class flights to and from Toronto and was the fourth highest spender in the period examined. In your case it said:

Manitoba Conservative senator and former Conservative Party president Donald Plett claimed the second-highest amount of money on travel during the five-week period reviewed by CBC News.

In total, Plett spent just over $12,000. He was not in favour of suspending the three senators whose fate was being debated at the time.

The cost of round trip airline tickets between Winnipeg and Ottawa purchased by Plett ranged from $1,300 to as high as $3,000. He also flew his spouse to Ottawa using public money three times at a total cost of nearly $6,000.

“I will be audited along with all my other colleagues. So I am not going to comment until after the audit is complete,” Plett said in an interview.

“I know that the audit will find that I have done nothing wrong intentionally,” he added. “Am I going to have some mistakes? I’ve been here for 4½ years and it is a fairly complex system at times and certainly I will not comment on whether there have been some mistakes made, but I will not have intentionally done anything wrong.”

You felt the information about you was “deliberately misleading.” One of the things you found misleading was the fact that only a month, and not the full reporting period, was featured.

“It is interesting that in the entire fiscal year you chose the four week period where my wife travelled with me the most frequently, where in reality, had you done your research for the entire fiscal year, as I had suggested, you would find that she flies with me roughly a third to half of the time.”

You pointed out that senators, as well as Members of the House of Commons, are allowed to travel with their wives if they are flying to Ottawa for parliamentary business. You questioned why this was newsworthy in the first place. You pointed out that you frequently use flight passes, which significantly reduce the cost of travel, but that Senate rules do not allow spouses to use those passes. You felt your travel expenses were misrepresented because you used passes on 6 of 8 flights you took in the full reporting period. In fact, the $1,300 fare quoted in the online story represents the round trip use of passes plus applicable fees. The passes represent a saving over regular fares.

You also felt the online article was highly misleading because the prices quoted in the original version of the article referred to the cost of an “airline ticket.” You told Timothy Sawa, the producer of the story, that “an airline ticket refers to a single flight,” and the prices quoted referred to the round trip expense. You felt this was further evidence of the bias and misleading nature of the work. The writers changed the wording to ensure clarity. You also disputed some of the fares quoted.

You also pointed out an error – the original version of the story stated your wife had flown business class and this was not the case. It was amended to say that she had used a Latitude fare.

The error and clarification were corrected on the website, but you thought they should also be corrected, and the story retracted, on The National, because Susan Bonner presented a version of this story on the broadcast of February 12, 2014. You also feel the correction would have wider circulation and attention if it is broadcast on The National. You told Mr. Sawa:

“How can any professional think that printing an article as inflammatory as yours was and then reporting it on the most watched news program (the national) in the country and having your television station spend 30 minutes on arguably the most popular political talk show (power and politics) discussing this and then making a slight correction on your on line story that probably not 10 people in the country will read in any way corrects your blatant defamation of me and my wife's character makes things right?”

You also objected to the juxtaposition of your travel expenses with the mention of your vote on the suspension of three senators who have been under investigation: Pamela Wallin, Patrick Brazeau and Mike Duffy.

Since the expenses involved were for flights for you and your wife, you are demanding a full retraction of the story on all CBC platforms and an apology to her.

You had further concerns about the broadcast. You felt Susan Bonner had taken your words out of context. You said that the clip used of you in her story was used inappropriately. Ms. Bonner was talking about your travel expenses for the five week period under discussion, but the response she used was to a different question that asked “whether the Auditor General will find any mistakes in my expenses.” “The clip was blatant manipulation.”

Overall, you said your record shows that you are careful and measured in using the allowable travel afforded to you as a senator, and so it is particularly unfair that you were singled out in this fashion:

“The rules of the Senate need to be clarified and they need to change. Nobody is advocating for that more than the senators themselves. My expense claims and my history in the chamber have not demonstrated that I have taken advantage of flawed rules, but rather that I have gone out of my way to save taxpayer dollars. That is why I primarily expense economy passes. That is why I only fly my wife to Ottawa a third to half of the time (also on economy tickets), and why I brought flight passes to the Senate in the first place. It is why I have publicly admitted in the chamber that a member of the Senate finance team told me when I was first appointed that Senate expenses are “whatever you deem them to be”. I said at the time that this was wrong. I have been advocating for rule changes ever since.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Director of Journalistic Public Accountability and Engagement, Jack Nagler, responded to your concerns about the way you had been portrayed in these stories. He said “we have a responsibility to be fair and accurate in our reporting on you as an individual and on the institution of the Senate as a whole,” and that in this case CBC News had done so.

He explained the story focused on the period of October 14 to November 17, 2013 because this was the time frame where scrutiny on the Senate and interest in the ongoing expenses scandal involving several senators was most intense:

“The purpose of our February 12th stories was quite clearly not an indictment of any individual. It was to showcase the juxtaposition between ongoing practice for allowable expenses by Senators on one side, and the furor over previous expenses by Senators Harb, Wallin, Duffy and Brazeau on the other. Given that climate, asking questions about Senate expenditures is entirely reasonable and indisputably in the public interest. Is public money being well spent? Are the rules applied to Senators reasonable? “

He said that although you might disagree with the news value or reporting on these expenses, this was reasonable journalistic practice. “Why release the documents if you consider it irresponsible to scrutinize them?”

He explained that the journalists took examples from the data, and that you happened to be near the top of the expenditure list for the period under examination. He emphasized that there was nothing defamatory nor were you targeted in some way. The report was based on the numbers. He pointed out that the reports emphasized that neither you nor any of the other senators mentioned had violated any rules of the Senate, and that Susan Bonner in her piece on The National clearly spelled out what those rules were. He also pointed out that in each of the reports it was clear the Conservative senators were the only ones that had voluntarily released their expenses, and that the formerly Liberal senators had not yet done so. This was why only Conservative senators were featured. He undertook to do a similar story when the Liberal data became available.

He acknowledged the two details that were “problematic” in the story, and said they had been corrected accordingly. He explained the correction was made only online because that was the only place the error occurred:

“You called to our attention that the flights for your wife were Latitude class and not business class, so we made a correction promptly at CBCNews.ca. It was done online because that is the only place we had made any direct statement to that effect. You also felt that we had confused round-trip tickets for one-way. We thought that was clear the way it was originally written. But out of respect, we added a clarification to make the language so precise that anyone would make the correct distinction. And we do that happily – it is our objective to have our story be the best that it can be.”

He said that CBC News stood by the coverage, and would not be issuing a retraction.

REVIEW

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices highlights accuracy, fairness and balance. They are core values.

In the case of the online piece, there was one error in the original piece which violates the policy of accuracy, but it was corrected when you made news staff aware of it. This fulfills the policy on Corrections which states:

We make every effort to avoid errors on the air and online. In keeping with values of accuracy, integrity and fairness, we do not hesitate to correct a significant error when we have been able to establish that one has occurred. This is essential for our credibility with Canadians. When a correction is necessary, it is made promptly given the circumstances, with due regard for the reach of published error.

The fact that a situation has evolved so that information that was accurate at the time of its publication is no longer accurate does not mean that an error was committed, but we must consider the appropriateness of updating it, taking into account its importance and impact.

The form and timing of a correction will be agreed with the Director, in consultation with the Law Department where applicable.

The second alteration was made in the interests of clarity. You felt it was not clear that an airline ticket denoted a round trip, so that was further clarified. This would seem to be a responsible response and indicates that CBC News staff took the issue of accountability seriously.

You believe that the correction should be made on The National and Power and Politics as well. There is no policy requirement to do so as the error was not committed there. You believe that more people will be aware of it if it is broadcast, but it would actually require recapping the whole story, repeating the error and then correcting it, thereby resurrecting the whole story. I am not sure that serves the audience, or you, very well. I say the error was not committed there because the opening statement in the exchange between Peter Mansbridge and Susan Bonner on The National states:

We begin tonight with a story that may add to the outrage over the Senate these days. CBC News did a review of Senate travel reported during the height of the expense scandal last fall, and it found little restraint. Instead, there was a lot of executive-class air travel often with spouses, flights also covered by you, the taxpayer. Susan Bonner has more. And a note: her story covers only Conservative expenses because the former Liberal Senate caucus has yet to make their detailed claims public.

In the next portion of the report, Ms. Bonner refers to Senator Tannas and a flight he took with his wife. When she refers to you she says “Manitoba Senator Donald Plett billed 12,280 dollars traveling between Winnipeg and Ottawa over that month.” There is no mention of your spouse.

The National piece also made it very clear that none of the Senators featured had broken any rules. Ms. Bonner explained that the Senate caps the number of flights allowed per year, but has no restrictions on the dollar figure. She made it clear that it is permissible to bring a spouse to Ottawa when a Senator is there on government business:

The rules provide for family reunion travel to help with the “health and well-being” of senators who need to be away for lengthy periods. Peter, clearly the travel rules are open to interpretation with, it seems, few challenges. It's worth pointing out that the Conservative expenses were made public voluntarily. As for the Liberals, the Liberals kicked their senators out of caucus and haven't yet delivered on the promise to make past expenses public.

I note that in the interests of fairness, more than once in the broadcast the point is made that Conservative senators reported voluntarily and at that point Liberal senators had not. When they did at the end of February, a story was done. CBC News staff tell me they are still analyzing the data and may do other stories, should the data warrant it.

The Power and Politics conversation between Evan Solomon and Ms. Bonner occurred the day after The National broadcast. A good deal of the conversation dealt with the details of the Senate travel rules and what issues they might raise. Once again, in any reference to you there is no talk of business class travel for your wife:

The second highest spender was Donald Plett from Manitoba. He said he didn’t want to talk about it because he believes the Auditor General is going to clear him of any problems. He doesn’t think he did anything wrong, at least not intentionally is what he told us and he says he thinks the Auditor General is going to look at all of this and find that no one did anything intentionally wrong.

There is no mention of your wife’s travel here either. There is no reason for a further correction or clarification to be given on air.

The web story posed certain specific difficulties for you, starting with the headline, “Tory Senators Expense Business Class Flights with Spouses.” That is a broad statement, but a reader would not know which senators are being referred to at that point. It would not be apparent you were referred to. And, in fact, in the first mention of you it is clear that your wife did not use a business-class ticket. The paragraph that refers to you by name makes it clear that your wife did not fly business class:

During those five weeks, three of the top four Tory travel spenders in the Senate claimed a total of $24,011.79 on business class airfares for themselves and another $7,988.99 on business class flights for two of their spouses. Senator Plett spent $5,590.22 on travel for his spouse, which he says was for Latitude tickets (the top tier available in economy).

You also felt it was unfair that the details of your spending were juxtaposed with the fact that you voted against suspension of the three senators. That vote occurred in the five-week period under scrutiny in the story, and is set up in that way:

The pricey travel, found by a CBC News review, came at the same time as senators were debating whether or not to suspend three of their peers — Pamela Wallin, Mike Duffy and Patrick Brazeau — for questionable spending practices.

The story gives the voting record of all three of the senators mentioned by name in the article. There is no indication that there was a particular bias in your case.

The basis of your complaint is that the coverage is misleading and deliberately sets out to put you and your travel expenses in a negative light. Again, aside from the error around business class tickets, all the numbers reported are accurate. You wondered why CBC chose the five-week period they did and you assert it was because it was the time your wife travelled with you the most. As you told Ms. Bonner in the interview you did with her, “It is unfair to take just a one month period of time because of the way our reporting mechanism works.”

In fact, the producer tells me that when they began the research it was only that one month period that was available to them. “The five weeks that we reported on was the initial period for which all Conservative senators had posted. This was the first time that anyone could take a look at certain specific spending of all Conservative Senators. And this was the time frame we took a look at.” They also made an editorial decision to frame the discussion with the broader ongoing issues with some senators’ expenses. The period in question was a time when it was very much in the news.

The CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices refers to fairness in this way:

In our information gathering and reporting, we treat individuals and organizations with openness and respect. We are mindful of their rights. We treat them even-handedly.

The purpose of the story was to draw public attention to the rules for Senate expenses. That seems to be a legitimate public interest matter. You were not randomly chosen as one of the senators whose expenses were discussed. In the period examined, you were the second highest spender and your wife had accompanied you three times. There is no implication that you had broken the rules, but there were questions about the costs.

You were given, as policy demands, the opportunity to explain the facts from your perspective. You were asked for your response, and when you initially declined, the producer of the story emailed you some time before the broadcast, outlining in some detail what the story was about and what issues he hoped to discuss with you in an interview with Ms. Bonner. You agreed to talk to her. You told her two things: that you felt it unfair to just look at a month long period only, and that you would not comment further until the auditor general completed a review, and that you were sure he would find that you have “done everything properly,” and any error would be inadvertent.

In your correspondence with both the producer of the piece and Mr. Nagler, you talk about the need to clarify the Senate rules, and explain you have been careful with taxpayer’s money. You pointed out you introduced the use of the often cheaper flight passes to the Senate. It is unfortunate this statement or a similar one was not available to the reporter and producer at the time they were preparing the story for publication. The reporter can only work with the material she has available on the record.

Your point that the whole period should have been reported is a fair one, as it provides more context. But there is certainly no policy violation or problem with a focus on the shorter time period, as it was applied consistently to everyone. The expense report attached to the cbcnews.ca article only covers the five week period. CBC managers might consider updating the documents to reflect the entire reporting period, which would provide the broader context.

You had another concern about the interview Ms. Bonner did with you. You felt that in her conversation with you she used your statement about the auditor rather than the statement in which you say you stand by your expenses. I do not believe you were taken out of context. You state that you will not comment on your expenses until the auditor has reviewed them, and in response to a supplementary question, you say you don’t think the auditor will find that you have done anything wrong intentionally. Using it as she did in the broadcast did not distort its meaning or context.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman