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Alberta Airbnb MLA apologizes for renting subsidized Edmonton suite

Emma Graney

By Emma Graney

An Alberta United Conservative Party MLA is taking a leave of absence from his role as finance critic in the wake of a controversy over renting out his taxpayer-subsidized apartment on Airbnb for months.

"Since January, I believed that renting out my Edmonton home while I was away was above-board and never costed (SIC) the taxpayer anything extra," Strathmore-Brooks MLA Derek Fildebrandt wrote in a brief statement late Thursday, before leaving the province on vacation.

"I, however, recognize the perception that this is not good enough, and have spoken with my constituents, and they are never wrong. I apologize."

The Sun revealed Wednesday that Fildebrandt rented out his downtown Edmonton apartment on Airbnb at least eight times between January and March. Over the same months, he claimed $7,720 in accommodation allowance from the public purse.

At least three people rented it between April and June, when Fildebrandt claimed $3,860 in accommodation allowance.

According to the listing, since removed from most Airbnb sites, he charged around $70 per night, with a two-night minimum stay.

On Thursday night, UCP interim leader Nathan Cooper said in a statement Fildebrandt is taking a leave of absence from his finance critic position.

According to the party, that can be re-evaluated under the new leader, who will be elected Oct. 28.

Fildebrandt is the former Alberta director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, and it's a juxtaposition that particularly galls his critics.

Director from 2012 to 2014, Fildebrandt rallied against cabinet minister expense claims and helped the then-Progressive Conservative government draft new expense disclosure policies for MLAs.

He also brought firebrand condemnation of big government spending to his role as opposition finance critic.

In December 2015, in a debate about the Fiscal Planning and Transparency Act, Fildebrandt put forward an amendment to dock the pay of cabinet ministers who fail to meet financial targets.

If members don't follow laws they themselves have passed, he argued at the time, they should face a financial penalty, adding that Finance Minister Joe Ceci was "not sticking to the intent" of legislation.

Alberta Party Leader Greg Clark threw those comments back at Fildebrandt on Thursday, arguing Fildebrandt wasn't sticking to the intent of expense rules.

"It's a bit rich for someone who claims to be fighting for taxpayers to be benefiting from a taxpayer-subsidized apartment," Clark said.

Current CTF interim director Colin Craig said it doesn't matter which MLA flouted the rules, "Jill and Joe Taxpayer ... just don't want their money used in that manner."

Premier Rachel Notley said that her taxpayer-funded vehicle is sometimes parked, but she's not about to convert it into an Uber ride.

Fildebrandt told the Sun on Wednesday he had done nothing wrong.

On Thursday morning, he issued a public statement reiterating that position, adding he was happy to donate the full $2,555 he made through Airbnb over eight months "to paying down the provincial debt."

Clark slammed that as "ridiculous."

"Ethics is what you do when no one is looking," he said. "He didn't apologize, which he should have done, and he's only doing it because he got caught."

Fildebrandt said Wednesday the Airbnb arrangement was cleared by the Legislative Assembly Office, but Thursday, the Speaker's Office said it had no record of prior approval being given to the MLA.

Call for expense review

Craig said Fildebrandt's actions illustrate the need for a full review of the rules governing expenses.

"The public gives MLAs money to cover off their accommodation expenses, and those dollars shouldn't be used for the MLAs to profit privately," Craig said.

Craig wants the review to encompass accommodation expenses, mileage and other small bits and bobs MLAs can claim, such as car detailing.

"Things like that are out of step with what everyday Albertans can receive from their employers," he said.

Clark also wants the rules examined and vowed to bring it up at the next members' services committee meeting.

He wrote to the Speaker asking for an investigation, an audit of all MLA expenses, and financial penalties for members who break the rules.

MLAs from outside the capital region are allowed to claim a maximum of $23,160 in a fiscal year to own or lease a property in Edmonton, or $193 per night for a hotel while in the city on official business.

That cash can go toward accommodation expenses like rent, utilities and parking, but the rules explicitly state that MLAs are only entitled to the actual costs incurred.

egraney@postmedia.com

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