OTTAWA – A Conservative government decision to move the office that investigates election fraud out from under the roof of Elections Canada is costing almost $3 million in up-front costs.
An order paper response to Liberal MP Scott Simms details $2,939.557.90 budgeted to move the office of elections commissioner Yves Cote, including $122,000 for a consultant and $265,000 in management fees for the relocation.
The government split the commissioner of elections from its home within Elections Canada earlier this year as part of a hotly contested bill dubbed the Fair Elections Act.
Yves Cote, the current commissioner, testified at the time that the move was “an attempt to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.”
But Pierre Poilievre, the minister for democratic reform, defended the split by saying the investigation of elections offences should be completely independent of the watchdog that administers the Canada Elections Act.
As Poilievre put it last February, “the referee should not be wearing a team jersey.”
In an email Monday evening, Poilievre noted the costs cited are estimates that will be updated later in the public accounts.
“We are very proud of the decision to create an independent investigator,” the minister said in the email.
“Removing the commissioner from Elections Canada will separate the administration of election law and the investigation of potential offences.”
The government had planned to move the commissioner’s office in with the federal director of public prosecutions. Instead, the commissioner will move to a separate location about a block from Elections Canada’s office in Gatineau, Que.
“They’ve created this air of independence that’s cost a hell of a lot of money and I don’t know that they’ve actually moved the ball down the field,” Simms said Monday.
Through an Access to Information request, Simms obtained internal emails showing the commissioner lobbied heavily to remain within the same building with Elections Canada as a matter of practicality — a position endorsed by the public prosecutor’s office.
“We discussed location at length and the strong preference from the commissioner is to stay in the building on Victoria Street” housing Elections Canada, says a June 6 email from the deputy director of the Public Prosecution Service of Canada.
“That is more practical for their operations, and since we want to try to buy IM/IT (information management, information technology) services from EC (Elections Canada), also makes more sense for us.”
The prosecution services’ administrative director agreed and responded, “We will begin planning for the relocation of the commissioner of elections within their current address.”
It is not clear from the ATIP documents when that decision changed.
The itemized list of relocation costs includes $1.9 million in construction costs, $250,000 for information technology, $250,000 for furniture and $260,000 in landlord fees.
The new office will also cost $165,000 annually in rent, $155,000 annually for communications staff and $20,000 for access to information staff.
The chief electoral officer administers election laws, the commissioner enforces them and investigates breaches and the director of public prosecutions decides whether or not to lay charges.
Cote testified last spring that investigative independence for his office — which he considered a non-issue — could have been dealt with by simply amending the Canada Elections Act to say his work “shall be carried out in a manner that is completely independent” from the chief electoral officer.
The physical separation, said Cote, would slow down investigations, create communication problems, and go against principles established by regulatory bodies such as the Canada Revenue Agency, the Competition Bureau and the Canada Border Services Agency.
William Corbett, who served as commissioner of elections from 2006 to 2012, testified that moving the commissioner out of Elections Canada would do nothing to enhance his independence, but would hurt the oversight of federal election campaigns — when the commissioner and the administrator work closely to monitor potential issues as they arise.
Last month, the government rejected an access to information request by The Canadian Press seeking information on the cost of the move, saying such costs were cabinet confidences. Poilievre subsequently claimed in the Commons that no public funds had been spent on the move yet.
The itemized list provided to Simms shows that $122,112.86 has been “incurred to date” for an architectural consultant.
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