Top executives at British Columbia’s social housing agency were among officials who failed to follow government travel requirements when they stayed in overly expensive hotels, provincial government auditors found.
On at least four occasions while travelling outside the province for work between 2017 and 2019, BC Housing CEO Shayne Ramsay stayed in hotels that auditors found charged more than the rates the government considered reasonable.
Records released to The Tyee showed several further examples of overspending on hotels and included a bill for six nights Ramsay stayed at a four-star hotel in San Francisco that cost about C$510.
BC Housing’s activities to subsidize housing include everything from operating emergency shelters for people who are homeless, to providing rent assistance payments to low-income households renting in the private market.
In 2018, the average rental assistance payment provided through BC Housing to low-income families was $472 for a month.
Ramsay, whose total compensation was $374,000 last year, has been CEO since 2000.
BC Housing was one of five Crown corporations that staff with the Finance Ministry’s Internal Audit and Advisory Services examined for the report “Review of Crown Corporations’ Executive Travel and Employment Expenses.”
The auditors also looked at the BC Oil and Gas Commission, BC Pavilion Corp., Columbia Basin Trust and the Royal BC Museum. They considered a sample of the $885,000 in executive travel expenses incurred between 2017 and 2019 at the five Crown corporations by their CEOs and by vice-presidents reporting directly to those CEOs.
While Crown corporations operate with some independence from the government, they are expected to follow the “spirit and intent” of the province’s Core Policy and Procedures Manual, the report said.
“For in-province accommodation, the majority of hotel rates for VPs were reasonable when compared to government-approved hotel rates,” they found. “However, we noted instances where CEO accommodation exceeded the government-approved hotel rates.”
The finding was similar for out-of-province travel, with most VPs staying within limits considered reasonable when compared to rates set by the Treasury Board of Canada, but several expenses incurred by CEOs were too high.
According to a table in the audit report, BC Housing was the only one of the five Crown corporations where a vice-president had exceeded the approved rates.
And while all five CEOs had spent too much on out-of-province accommodation at least once, there were more instances found at BC Housing than at the other four.
“Crowns should provide additional guidance to clarify what is considered to be reasonable accommodation rates,” the audit report recommended. “Crowns’ policies should require justification and approval in instances where accommodation rates defined in internal policy will be exceeded.”
The report lacked specific examples, however, so The Tyee filed requests under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act with the Finance Ministry and BC Housing for copies of any receipts for expenses that had exceeded the government’s guidelines.
The records released in response showed a two-night stay in 2017 for BC Housing’s CEO Ramsay at the Fairmont Château Laurier in Ottawa had cost $742.56, including taxes and fees.
Another two-night stay that year, at the Marriott Fallsview Hotel & Spa in Niagara Falls, cost $775.01. There were single-night stays that cost $376.79 at the boutique SoHo Metropolitan Hotel & Residences in Toronto and $396.72 at the Hilton Hotels & Resorts in the same city.
A couple of hotel bills for former BC Housing vice-president of operations Craig Crawford also caught the attention of the Finance Ministry’s auditors, including a four-night stay that cost $1,649.25. The name of the hotel and its location were struck from what the government released. Crawford left BC Housing in 2019 and has opened a consulting business.
Finance Ministry auditors had only looked at about one-third of travel expenses for their review.
The records BC Housing released also included receipts for Ramsay for another nine stays in Toronto and Ottawa where the nightly rates had exceeded the government’s guidelines that had not been included in the Finance Ministry response.
A return to Ottawa in 2018 for two more nights at the Fairmont Château Laurier cost $724.78.
BC Housing also included a US$2,300.76 bill from when Ramsay stayed at the JW Marriott Union Square hotel in downtown San Francisco for six nights in the fall of 2019. At the exchange rate current at the time, it would have cost about C$3,061, or C$510 a night.
The audit report is clear that “reasonable” rates for hotels will vary depending on the city, province, country and season.
The province’s approved options for a stay in Vancouver in early December this year, for example, range from $75 to $179 a night. An approved rate during the high season next summer could be as much as $279 per night.
Ramsay was unavailable for an interview.
A spokesperson for BC Housing said in an emailed statement that the Crown corporation is “committed to upholding fiscal responsibility” to the people of the province and that it welcomed the audit results which “only identified a few areas” for improvement.
“We have implemented all the recommendations and have made improvements to our internal processes to ensure we are upholding our commitment to the public,” the statement said.
“Regarding the CEO travel expenses, BC Housing determined them to be reasonable based on the business requirements, for example representing the province at national and international meetings to share specialized expertise as an internationally recognized leader in the industry.”
The organizers of meetings set the locations and BC Housing does its best to find rates within the province’s standards, they said. “In a few instances this was not reasonably possible, and factors such as proximity to meetings and what was available at the time influenced the accommodation choices that had to be made.”
They added, “Every effort was made to stay as close to the standard rates as possible.”
Other receipts included in the FOI response package from the Finance Ministry, which censored hotel names and locations, showed Columbia Basin Trust president and CEO Johnny Strilaeff had single-night hotel stays that cost $331.91 and $397.17.
Paul Jeakins, the CEO and commissioner at the BC Oil and Gas Commission, had a $298.50 bill for a one-night stay in a hotel.
There was also a $1,295.26 MasterCard receipt for accommodation in Barcelona, Spain. It is unclear who it was for and for how many nights, but it was included on a page of receipts from the BC Oil and Gas Commission.
Other receipts of concern to the auditors included $51.45 spent at the FireRock Lounge in Whistler, $77.91 at the Charles Bar in Vancouver and $217.44 at the Cactus Club at Coal Harbour in Vancouver.
Nor did the auditors like a $97.91 charge for an Oil and Gas Commission lunch meeting at an Earls in Whistler for Jeakins, vice-president Ines Piccinino, Brad Herald and Geoff Morrison from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers industry lobby group, and Simon Coley, an assistant deputy minister of energy, mines and low carbon innovation.
According to the audit report, reimbursements for meals should include a description of the business purpose of the meal and who was there.
“Overall, the meal reimbursements and business meals sampled did not contain appropriate supporting documentation,” they said in reference to their review of all five Crown corporations. “Some business meals were reimbursed based on credit card receipts, while others provided itemized receipts but did not detail the business purpose or parties involved.”
The poor documentation “reduces the effectiveness of an organization’s internal controls” since it’s impossible to determine whether the costs being reimbursed are reasonable or in keeping with policy, they said.