Minister caught short on credit card

BY TRACY WATKINS AND VERNON SMALL
Last updated 05:00 23/02/2010

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At least one Government minister has been forced to pay back expenses wrongly billed to his taxpayer-funded credit card and others are scrambling to check their spending.

Housing Minister Phil Heatley will repay Ministerial Services today for the $70 cost of two bottles of wine that he bought for National Party members at AMI Stadium in Christchurch last year and billed to his ministerial credit card.

An embarrassed Mr Heatley admitted, after checking with officials following questions raised by The Dominion Post, that he should never have paid for the wine with his ministerial card.

It suggests officials have been rubberstamping ministerial expenses.

The wine purchase was one of hundreds of transactions by ministers revealed by the release of credit card details in response to an Official Information Act request.

Mr Heatley has also run foul of the rules for running up expenses on his card and later reimbursing Ministerial Services – a practice he acknowledged was against the rules, though he was not aware of that till yesterday.

The expenses included a South Island trip with his wife and children on fisheries business, a wallet, a family outing to the cinema that he mistakenly billed to his ministerial credit card and repaid the following day, and a meal at upmarket Wellington seafood restaurant Shed 5, which he later realised was not within the rules.

It was also "technically" against the rules for him to pay for a meal with Transport Minister Steven Joyce in his home town, Whangarei, Mr Heatley said.

Energy Minister Gerry Brownlee is also checking his spending after slapping a $151 lunch for his electorate staff on his ministerial card. If it was not right he would reimburse it, Mr Brownlee said.

"It was a bit of a thank you to them ... I am checking it out now."

He said the staff also did ministerial work, so he had thought it was within the rules.

"I suppose in theory ... Ministerial Services ought to be reimbursing Parliamentary Service for the amount of time I am spending in there doing ministerial business."

The Dominion Post approached Internal Affairs for further explanations of their practices over ministerial expenses and credit cards, and was told to put the requests in writing and they would be answered as Official Information Act requests.

The process can take 20 working days or longer.

Among the questions The Dominion Post wanted answered were how some expenses that were clearly outside the rules had been approved.

Mr Heatley confirmed that he had charged up goods and later reimbursed Ministerial Services on four separate occasions and it had never been queried.

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"I'd taken it for granted that you could reimburse [Ministerial Services]. It's come to my attention that no, that's not the case."

Tim Groser has also confirmed dinners with a journalist and National Party stalwart Simon Upton at meetings described in his credit card returns as being related to his portfolios.

Prime Minister John Key, Health Minister Tony Ryall, Attorney-General Christopher Finlayson, Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully and Defence Minister Wayne Mapp do not have ministerial credit cards.

Others show minimal or no expenditure, including Finance Minister Bill English, Mr Joyce and Justice Minister Simon Power.

Ministerial credit cards are not the only way for ministers to pay expenses, with most big ticket items billed directly to the minister's office and Ministerial Services.

WHAT THEY CHARGED TO THEIR CREDIT CARDS

Phil Heatley: $3133.15

Includes:

* $549 at Bags of Difference in Wellington in November. Reimbursed $69.95 for a wallet.

* $107.50 for a meal at Shed 5 in August. He reimbursed it a month later.

* $47.50 for a family outing at Reading Cinemas on May 11. He reimbursed the money the next day.

* On June 6, $9.50 at Burger King in Henderson.

* $604 to take his car and family on the Interislander on his way to a ministerial tour of the top of the South Island. He reimbursed $105 for the cost of taking his children.

* On the trip, between March 27 and 29, he billed another $302 for meals.

* In April he spent $72.20 at Fishmart in Freemans Bay in Auckland, $172 at Only Seafood in Paihia and another $126 for a dinner with Transport Minister Steven Joyce at the Killer Prawn restaurant in his electorate of Whangarei.

* $70 for wine at the National Party conference in Christchurch in August.

Gerry Brownlee: $3347.71

Includes:

* $151.40 for lunch with electorate staff at the Belgian Beer Cafe in Christchurch. He is now checking whether that was within the rules.

* $84.90 at the Q Pot in Christchurch for lunch with two ministerial staff over a "metering issue".

* $157.50 in June at the Q Pot - no detailed invoice provided - after the launch of the insulation fund.

* $1109.37 in April at the Seaview Restaurant, Nuku'alofa, Tonga. Mr Brownlee said it was for five days' food and accommodation.

Tim Groser: $4514.79

Includes:

* $223 for dinner with two "key contacts" at The Wine Room in Wellington. Yesterday he named only National activist Guy Salmon. No detailed invoice was supplied.

* $367.52 in May for a meal at Tomate, Washington, in what was described as a bilateral trade and climate-change-related meeting. Yesterday he revealed it was with recently appointed OECD official and former National MP Simon Upton.

* $247.50 on a dinner at the Matterhorn with Dominion Post journalist Paul Easton and Conservation Department spokesman Bernie Napp.

* $1620.29 at the Arctic Hotel at Ilulissat, Greenland.

WHAT ARE THE RULES?

* The ministerial handbook states that "use of a credit card for personal expenditure (regardless of the intent to reimburse) is not permitted". The words "is not permitted" are underlined for emphasis.

* Users of the cards must:

- get a tax invoice/receipt for all purposes.

- attach receipts and credit card slips to signed reconciliation form.

- include reason for expenditure and explanation.

- The Dominion Post

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