UPDATED: Bad Credit: Unauthorized Spending Sees Speaker Cut Off

After a meal out in Ottawa, personal hotel bills and two car rentals totaling more than $1,200 in the span of three months, Speaker of the House Jackie Jacobson was cut off.  The bills were racked up on a government credit card between November 2014 and January of this year, and came on top of more than $6,000 of personal expenses already charged to that government credit card over the term of the 17th Legislative Assembly.

On Monday, the territory will head to the polls to elect the people that will determine future development, regulate service provisions and determine budgetary priorities – in other words, spend our money. An EDGE investigation into government credit card expenses during the last assembly revealed a few MLAs who blurred the lines between business and pleasure when it came to expenses, but only Jacobson, currently running for re-election in Nunakput, appears to have made a habit of it. He also happens to be the chair of the board that oversees such spending.

“I certainly wouldn’t describe it as an ideal situation,” said Tim Mercer, Clerk of the Legislative Assembly. “But he is a member like all other members and sometimes there is legitimate uncertainty as to what is an eligible expense and what isn’t. I think (Jacobson) falls under that uncertainty from time to time as well, and obviously has in this case.”

As speaker, Jacobson was the chair of the Board of Management – the body tasked with, among other things, reviewing expenditures of the legislative assembly. When asked whether it is within the role of the board chair to have a clear understanding of the rules over credit card use, Mercer – the secretary of the board – confirmed that it is.

Having been clerk since 2003, Mercer said he hasn’t previously had to suspend a speaker’s privileges. He has, however, suspended Jacobson’s twice.

“His card was suspended during the 16th assembly, and at the commencement of the 17th assembly he did request to have his card reinstated, which we did,” Mercer said. “But it was subsequently suspended in the last year.”

It happens

It’s not unheard of for members to have credit card privileges taken away, though Mercer said it is rare. As well as Jacobson, Nehendeh MLA Kevin Menicoche was stripped of his government credit card during the 16th Legislative Assembly due to unauthorized spending.

Mercer described “a serious breach of the card while he was travelling,” at which point Menicoche’s card had to be cancelled.

“At that point, we did not re-issue another one,” Mercer said.

Once elected to the 17th Legislative Assembly, Menicoche re-applied and was granted a new card.

When EDGE reached out to Menicoche for comment, he declined, saying his credit card privileges being revoked was resolved more than five years ago and he considers the matter closed.

Lead by example?

In general, Mercer said unauthorized credit card use tends to be a matter of confusion over what does and does not constitute business expenditures. The cards are to be used for business-related travel, including accommodations, and are scrutinized by assembly staff as they come in.

In cases where expenses are questioned, members are asked to provide further details and if deemed a personal expense, repayment is required. The issue only goes to the board if there is any dispute over the expense, or recurring problems.

“We do our best to try and convince the member of what the card can and can’t be used for, but if we reach a point where that’s just not working, we’re required to suspend,” Mercer said.

Earlier this year, the Legislative Assembly was switching over credit card providers, with new cards on order. Mercer said the decision was made at that time to not reinstate Jacobson’s card.

“In normal instances the decision would be made by the Board of Management but in this case, because Mr. Jacobson is the chair of the Board of Management, the decision was made by both myself and the Director of Corporate Services of the Legislative Assembly to do that.”

With the roster of the 18th Legislative Assembly to be decided on Monday, Mercer said should Jacobson be re-elected, he could apply to have his credit card privileges restored.

“If Mr. Jacobson wanted to have his card reinstated in the next assembly, it would be a decision of the management board of the next assembly,” Mercer said. “And, I think there would have to be some strong reasons to do that.”

Multiple attempts by phone and email were made to reach Jacobson for comment, but none were returned.

UPDATE: November 21

Jacobson responds on social media

Despite phone calls and an email to both his government and personal accounts prior to publication, after the article was published on Friday evening, Jacobson claimed in a Facebook post that “At no time was (he) given a chance to respond to the accusations in this poor excuse for journalism.”

In a continued effort to give Jacobson the opportunity to comment and in response to a call from him following publication, an interview was arranged for Saturday morning. Unfortunately, Jacobson did not answer his phone at the agreed-upon time or when several calls were placed thereafter.

Following the accusations in his post that the story published was false and misleading, Jacobson assured his constituents that there was no misuse of funds on his part. He wrote that on several occasions, the clerk brought credit card charges to his attention, which were then immediately repaid.

“These were the results of clarification about what expenses were chargeable to my card and which were not,” Jacobson wrote – as was suggested in the original story. “These were quickly agreed upon and moved past.”

There was no question of whether or not the personal expenses Jacobson charged to his government credit were paid back – Tim Mercer noted that the Office of the Clerk ensured that 100 percent of all unauthorized purchases are paid back, whether voluntarily by the member or by recouping those costs through other expenditures that the member incurs on duty and requires repayment for. This role is taken on by legislative assembly staff, as noted in the story, unless there is a dispute and the board has to step in.

“In January of last year I began charging all work expenses to my personal credit card to avoid any further misunderstanding about my travel expense claims,” Jacobson wrote. Again, this was not disputed – the final expense on his government credit card was $573.49 for a car rental on Jan. 11, which was deemed personal and paid back. His government credit card was suspended as of Feb. 9.

“I have followed all rules and policies and take great issue with the false accusations made in this damaging article,” Jacobson wrote.

Though Jacobson continued that he was requesting a complete retraction of the piece and a formal apology, this will not happen as there were no false statements made.

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