Saturday, February 26, 2005

Look Boss, the Cost, the Cost!

Man, it never seems to end!

OTTAWA (CP) - The cost to taxpayers of sorting out the Maher Arar affair has soared to over $23 million, government figures show. Spending estimates tabled Friday in the Commons show an operating budget of $8.7 million was set aside in fiscal 2004-05 for the public inquiry headed by Justice Dennis O'Connor.

Francois Jubinville, a spokesman for the Privy Council Office, said an additional $3.7 million has been budgeted for the new fiscal year that starts April 1, bringing the inquiry's operating funds to $12.4 million.

O'Connor is looking into the role played by Canadian officials in Arar's detention in the United States and subsequent deportation to Syria, where he says he was tortured into false confessions of links to al-Qaida.

The official budget for O'Connor's work makes up a little more than half the total tab to the government so far.

Another $11.2 million has been run up by five federal departments and agencies.

The figures made public Friday show the Justice Department was by far the biggest spender, reporting $6.05 million in costs for "activities associated with" the affair.

Seamas Gordon, a department spokesman, said most of that money went to pay the fees for lawyers representing federal officials called to testify before O'Connor.

It's standard practice for the government to cover the legal costs incurred by any present or former bureaucrat in the course of official duties.

Other spending included $2.19 million by the Foreign Affairs Department, $2.07 million by the RCMP, $667,000 by the Privy Council Office and $198,000 by the Canada Border Services Agency $198,000.

That brought the grand total so far to $23.6 million.

The commission headed by O'Connor is no the only one that has been running up bills for the government over the last year.

The operating budget for another inquiry into the federal sponsorship scandal, under Justice John Gomery, is expected to be well over $30 million and possibly climb to $40 million.

Another $39 million in associated costs have been incurred by various federal departments, driving the total sponsorship bill close to $80 million.

Both inquiries were created last year by Prime Minister Paul Martin, in response to controversies he inherited from the previous regime of Jean Chretien.

Martin has defended the cost of the Gomery inquiry, saying it's worth it to find out what went wrong with the sponsorship program that saw millions of federal dollars flow to Liberal-friendly ad agencies.

Officials offered a similar justification Friday for spending on the Arar inquiry and related departmental costs.

"There is no question that commissions of inquiry are costly undertakings," said Stephen Bindman of the Justice Department.

"But in the case of the Arar inquiry, the government called one because it wanted to get to the bottom of the role of officials in what took place."

Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian citizen, was detained in New York on suspicions of terrorism in September 2002.

The telecommunications engineer, travelling on a Canadian passport, was eventually deported to Syria by U.S. authorities.

Arar, 35, says he was tortured for months in a grim Syrian prison before being released in the fall of 2003. He denies any involvement in terrorism.

Commission hearings are expected to extend well into this year. A final report is not expected before late 2005

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