Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott concedes it was “inappropriate” to spend $1,700 on a car service to drive her around the Greater Toronto Area for a day, and says it is not something she will do again.
Philpott attended three events on March 31, travelling from her home in the federal riding of Markham-Stouffville to Hamilton, from Hamilton to Toronto, and back to her riding again to attend a gala.
It was a busy day that also included $211 in airfare, according to publicly available travel expense reports.
Philpott travelled to Hamilton that day to announce roughly $20 million in funding for chronic disease research at McMaster University.
In Toronto, she participated in an announcement by the Canadian Foundation for Healthcare Improvement and the Canadian Frailty Network that Mount Sinai Hospital’s elder health-care strategy would be extended to 18 other facilities.
The day ended at a James Bond-themed gala at the Angus Glen Golf Club in support of the Evergreen Hospice in Stouffville.
The bill for ground transportation amounted to $1,709, including a $223 gratuity, all charged to Philpott’s Health Canada account.
That amount, which covered a full day’s worth of service, was paid to Executive Sedan Livery Service Inc., a Toronto-based limousine company. Its owner, Reza Shirani, was a volunteer on Philpott’s electoral campaign last year.
Her office has since revealed even higher expenses paid to the same car service, including a $1,994 bill for a car on the day the minister spoke at a July gathering of the Assembly of First Nations in Niagara Falls.
The minister also paid the company $3,814 for 20 trips to Toronto’s Pearson Airport before flying to Ottawa for ministerial business.
Shirani told the National Post he is a member of the Liberal Party and has previously canvassed for other candidates as well as Philpott.
“I volunteer for everybody,” he said. “Any Liberal.”
The services for Philpott were booked “way after I was volunteering for her campaign,” Shirani said, adding the two don’t have a special relationship.
However, Philpott’s office admitted the minister was aware of the connection when she used the service.
Philpott offered a written response to the National Post late Wednesday afternoon concerning the $1,700 bill from March 31: “The cost incurred for travel in the GTA was too high and is something I find inappropriate, and I have already taken steps to prevent this from occurring in the future.”
While Philpott’s office said the minister won’t use the limo service again, it stopped short of saying she would repay the money, as demanded by the Tories, noting the transportation was for legitimate business.
According to public disclosures, two staff members accompanied Philpott to her meetings March 31. Her director of communications, David Clements, expensed $865 that day, almost $600 of it on airfare, while chief of staff Genevieve Hinse spent $1,120, including $1,032 on flights.
In an answer to a June order paper question tabled in the House of Commons on limousine rentals, Health Canada said the minister “did not use rented limousines while on official business” between her appointment and April 22 of this year.
While the company bills itself as a limousine provider, it also rents out other types of vehicles, which could explain the discrepancy.
“Nobody’s suggesting a minister doesn’t need ground transportation,” tweeted Canadian Taxpayers Federation president Aaron Wudrick Wednesday. “But $1,700 for one day in the GTA? How is that reasonable?”
It looks “bad,” Wudrick suggested, that the minister paid for services from someone who had gone door-to-door for her during the election campaign.
“She should have spent $150 on a car rental and had one of her hundreds of staff drive her. There’s no excuse,” Conservative MP Michelle Rempel said in a tweet.
“I don’t agree with the Health min on everything, but she’s been solid,” Rempel continued. “Hopefully she apologizes / personally reimburses.”
Philpott is well-regarded on Parliament Hill, across party lines. While it’s not unusual for cabinet ministers to spend significant amounts on transportation, especially when events are scheduled closely together, natural resources minister Jim Carr drew fire for spending almost $1,800 on a February outing to a Winnipeg Jets hockey game, according to media reports from July, $525 of which went towards a one-kilometre limousine ride for a group of visiting energy ministers and ambassadors.