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British expense-account scandal claims government minister

While insisting he's done nothing wrong, a junior justice minister resigns after submitting $100,000 in reimbursement claims over three years.

May 16, 2009|Henry Chu

LONDON — Forget the fat-cat bankers with their million-dollar pensions. The people who have even the most reserved of Brits spluttering with outrage today are the politicians who ordered the moats on their country estates cleaned and who bought hundreds of sacks of horse manure (presumably for gardening purposes) -- and tried to charge taxpayers for it.

It's all part of a snowballing scandal in Britain that is fast leaving promising political careers in tatters. Day after day, new revelations over expenses claimed by elected officials bring fresh shame to an institution once proudly touted as "the mother of all parliaments."

On Friday, the debacle claimed its highest-profile victim yet when a government minister was forced to resign over his generous taxpayer-subsidized housing allowance.

Legislator Shahid Malik, a junior justice minister and rising star in the ruling Labor Party, stepped down from his minister post just hours after declaring that he had "nothing to apologize for" and that his claims for reimbursement for such items as a $3,000 flat-screen TV in his London apartment were perfectly reasonable.

Fear and trembling now stalk the august House of Commons as politicians brace for each new round of embarrassing revelations in the Daily Telegraph, the newspaper that obtained exclusively the information on lawmakers' expense reports.

For more than a week, the paper has served up front-page stories, beneath gigantic headlines, detailing the most egregious examples of what appears to be a prodigious talent shown by some members of Parliament for milking the system.

No political party has been spared, despite the paper's right-wing leanings.

Take, for example, former Cabinet minister Douglas Hogg, a lawmaker from the opposition Conservative Party, who submitted a receipt that included more than $3,000 for clearing out the moat on his manorial estate in the county of Lincolnshire. (Hogg has denied that he claimed it as an expense, saying that it was merely listed on a receipt with other expenditures that he did claim.)

Or his colleague, David Heathcoat-Amory, who asked to be paid back nearly $600 in taxpayer money for 550 bags of horse manure. Yet another horticulturally minded Tory member of Parliament, Alan Duncan, recouped about $6,000 in gardening costs over three years, including $900 for repairing a power mower, and fellow Conservative lawmaker David Willetts paid $150 for workers to come and replace 25 lightbulbs in his London home.

On the Labor side of the house, the portly former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott twice put in claims to have a toilet seat fixed and spent nearly $500 having mock-Tudor beams added to the facade of his house. Another minister, Barbara Follett, claimed $38,000 in beefed-up security patrols around her home after she was mugged.

Many of the claims did not break any parliamentary rules. But that is precisely the problem in the view of voters angry about the generosity politicians have shown themselves, even as thousands of their constituents have lost jobs and tightened belts.

On Friday, prosecutors and police announced that they would begin discussions next week as to whether any of the expense claims warrant criminal investigation.

The court of public opinion has already made up its mind.

"House of ill repute," the Guardian newspaper splashed across its front page Friday.

Malik, the first government minister to lose his job in the scandal, insisted that he had done nothing wrong, describing his submissions as modest and reasonable by comparison, even though they amounted to about $100,000 over three years for outfitting the second home he keeps in London for his time working in Parliament. According to the Daily Telegraph, Malik put in claims for a $1,100 massage chair, a $1,000 fireplace and a $3,000 TV. (Only half the TV's cost was reimbursed.)

"This isn't a helipad. It's not a tennis court. It's not horse manure. It's not a moat. . . . It's not a country estate," Malik told a reporter before he tendered his resignation late Friday morning. "I have absolutely nothing to apologize for. I've done nothing wrong."

Nonetheless, his position became untenable after Prime Minister Gordon Brown decided to launch an internal inquiry on Malik's expenses. Brown's office emphasized that Malik, who was elected to Parliament for the first time in 2005, would be reinstated to his post as justice minister if the investigation found no impropriety.

His constituents may not be so forgiving.

"Disgusting. I find it absolutely disgusting," one woman in Malik's district, in northern England, told the BBC.

Patricia Stogdale, a customer at a cafe in the district, said, "It's disgusting because of the way normal people are struggling at the moment. They tell people they should tighten their belts because of the recession . . . and now look at them!"

Calls are also growing louder for the speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin, to step down over his handling of the affair.

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