OTTAWA - The Liberals are trying to turn the tables on Conservatives who've had a heyday with excessive moving expenses claimed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's two top aides.
They revealed Friday that former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper's office paid out almost $325,000 in relocation expenses for 29 staffers — including a single move for one individual that came in at just over $93,000.
But the Tories shot back that the Harper staffers' total expense claims were run up over nine years, whereas Trudeau's PMO managed to rack up $220,564 for five staffers in just nine months.
The tit-for-tat ploy came a day after Trudeau's chief of staff, Katie Telford, and principal secretary, Gerald Butts, apologized for claiming $80,382 and $126,669 respectively in expenses incurred moving to Ottawa from Toronto.
The duo promised Thursday to reimburse a total of $65,000, attempting to douse the fire that has raged over the issue throughout the opening week of the fall parliamentary sitting.
There was no let-up in the Conservative attack Friday.
Tory House leader Candice Bergen said the reimbursement is an admission by the Liberals "that they have been using the taxpayer as their personal ATM." She noted that Telford and Butts are close friends of the prime minister's and that he had to sign off on their expense claims, which are paid to political staff throughout government at the discretion of each minister.
"This clearly shows a lack of judgment on behalf of the prime minister," Bergen told the House of Commons.
Bergen also demanded to know what is covered under "personalized cash payout" — an expense category she dubbed "ambiguous."
In a joint statement Thursday, Telford and Butts said the category covered "miscellaneous moving expenses" which resulted in payment of just over $23,000 to Telford and almost $21,000 to Butts. They conceded those payments were "unreasonable" and would be reimbursed.
"What other Liberal staffers received personalized cash payments?" demanded Bergen.
The government revealed earlier in the week, in response to a written question from a Conservative MP, that some four dozen political staffers in various ministers' office received a total of $1.1 million to move to Ottawa after Trudeau's Liberals won power last fall.
While the PMO accounted for the heftiest relocation bill, Telford and Butts were not the only staffers to make big claims. One staffer in the Global Affairs ministry received $119,825, another in Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains' office received $113,799 and another in Environment Minister Catherine McKenna's office received $75,894.
Trudeau initially defended the payments as having followed all the rules of a decades-old relocation policy that was last updated by the Harper government in 2011. But on Thursday he instructed Treasury Board to come up with a new — and presumably less generous — policy.
"The difference between the previous government and our government is that our prime minister recognizes the need that more can be done," said Government House leader Bardish Chagger, who as small business minister signed off on a $69,625 relocation claim by one staffer in her office.
Chagger first revealed the cost of the Harper PMO's moving expenses in the Commons. The Privy Council Office, the bureaucratic arm of the PMO, later released a detailed table showing the expenses paid each year, ranging from zero in 2007-08 to $133,054 in 2009-10.
PCO spokesman Raymond Rivet confirmed that one individual was paid just over $93,000 for a single move, although the expenses were claimed over a period of years.