The NDP is facing growing criticism for staffing offices in Montreal, Quebec City and Toronto with employees on the payroll of the House of Commons in Ottawa, including new attacks from a former New Democrat MP who said she faced "pressure" from the party to contribute to the budget for the system.
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair is vigorously defending the decision to hire parliamentary staff to work alongside party officials in a satellite office in Quebec after the 2011 election, stating the large group of rookie MPs needed the political support. "We've respected the rules every step of the way," Mr. Mulcair told reporters on Tuesday. "It's been open, it's been transparent since day one."
The controversy has been percolating for weeks in Ottawa after news reports revealed the existence of the satellite offices. Documents prepared for a committee hearing on the matter were leaked to the media this week. The Liberals and the Conservatives jumped at the opportunity to challenge Mr. Mulcair and his party on ethics.
The NDP said the administration of the House of Commons knew the staff were based outside Ottawa because it had their home addresses and provided them with cell phones with local numbers. The party said the satellite offices in Montreal and Quebec City helped Quebec MPs – who pooled their budgets to pay for the staff – communicate with the public and organize news conferences on parliamentary files.
The Conservatives and the Liberals pointed to internal correspondence that suggests the NDP told House of Commons officials the staff would be working in Ottawa. The Conservative Party has questioned whether the House of Commons approved of the innovative use of parliamentary funds.
"The NDP were caught diverting taxpayer-funded resources from their constituents to their party," Conservative MP Blake Richards said. "They should pay the money back."
In a rare occurrence for a party leader, Mr. Mulcair will appear before a committee of the House of Commons on Thursday to answer questions from Liberal and Conservative MPs about the issue.
A former New Democrat MP who joined the Liberal Party in 2012 said the party and the leader's office urged her to send some of her parliamentary budget to help pay for staff in Montreal. In a statement released by her office, Liberal MP Lise St-Denis said she "refused to pay the sums claimed by the NDP for the creation of this satellite office."
"Despite the pressures from the staff of the NDP head office, the MP persisted in her refusal to participate in the creation of this office," the statement said.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who is in a heated rivalry with Mr. Muclair to replace Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the next election, said the NDP needs to prove parliamentary funds were not used for partisan purposes.
"Misuse of public funds is always an extremely serious matter. It has been a long-standing rule in this place that there is a division between parliamentary work and partisan work," Mr. Trudeau said, adding he is "look[ing] forward to hearing Mr. Mulcair explain himself."
Mr. Mulcair told reporters there was no risk that the officials who were paid by the House of Commons were engaged in partisan activities during working hours.
"We're the only party on Parliament Hill that has unionized staff. They're unionized with two different bargaining units, two different unions, two different job descriptions, and if you know the NDP unions, you know that one group is not doing the work of the other group," he said.
Mr. Mulcair accused the other parties of trying to change the rules and apply them retroactively.