Chouhan to repay $2,200 for wife's plane ticket

Burnaby Edmonds NDP MLA Raj Chouhan -
Burnaby Edmonds NDP MLA Raj Chouhan
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Burnaby Edmonds MLA Raj Chouhan says he offered to pay for his wife's plane ticket to accompany him on a work trip to South Africa but was told it wasn't necessary.

The New Democrat said from Victoria he plans to repay the $2,200 shortly as he didn't have his chequebook with him.

Chouhan has been caught up in the controversy since it emerged that taxpayers covered the $5,528 cost of a flight to Johannesburg for the husband of BC Liberal MLA Linda Reid, the Speaker of the Legislature.

Reid was attending a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference last August. She and her husband flew business-class to South Africa.

Reid said Tuesday there is a long-standing practice of spouses accompanying B.C. officials on such trips, but the B.C. legislature's internal financial standards are evolving in light of public expectations.

"I traveled in my capacity as speaker," Reid told reporters Tuesday after being questioned about the trip. "It is important work on behalf of democracy."

She has since paid back the money.

In a phone interview Wednesday, Chouhan said he was also asked to attend in his role as assistant deputy speaker. At the time he inquired what the policy was for his wife to come with him.

"I was advised I can have one business-class ticket or split that into two economy-class. So I think the cheapest business-class … was $5,500 return airfare for one person. I found the cheapest economy fare which was $2,200 per person."

Chouhan said it was Reid who informed him of the policy.

"Right from onset even when I was advised about the policy the spouses were allowed to go as long as we are within that threshold, I said no, I would like to pay. I was advised again, no, it wasn't necessary."

He and his wife stayed at a budget hotel, a Holiday Inn Express.

The policy has been in practice for upwards of 30 years, he said.

"I met with the speaker last night, I asked her and she said that policy still stands. What I did was very correct, there was no need for me to pay it back," he said.

"But I really didn't feel comfortable to carry on with that. I said 'no, I'm going to pay it  back, repay $2,200.'"

As for the public outcry in response to the spousal expenses, Chouhan said, "I understand the public's concern because even though this policy has been in place for the last three decades, people's expectations change. So therefore the policies must reflect that thinking as well, so the policies also need to be reviewed and changed if necessary."

As for why Reid originally charged taxpayers for a business-class ticket for her husband when Chouhan was required to fly his wife economy to fit within the budget, he said, "My understanding is the same policy applies to everybody."

Chouhan declined to comment further.

When MLAs began reporting their expenses in 2012, Skeena MLA Robin Austin briefly rose to the top of the list thanks to a $19,000 trip to a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Speakers, deputy speakers and legislative clerks typically attend these conferences, aimed at strengthening parliamentary practices around the world.

~ with files from Tom Fletcher

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