Always well-groomed and dignified in her wheelchair, former Quebec lieutenant-governor Lise Thibault had a saintly smile. She looked like a very kind person, eager to listen to ordinary people and to show that handicapped people can live full lives. But according to federal and provincial audits, Ms. Thibault led a regal lifestyle at taxpayers' expense for the past 10 years.
Precisely because of her handicap, nobody dared criticize her for her bizarre declarations (she once said that before making a decision, she summoned her "dear departed" to ask for their advice), her partisan past (she was twice a defeated candidate for the Quebec Liberal Party) and her less-than-stellar speeches. She seemed ensconced in her post for life, even though she turned 68 this year. What was not known was the extent to which she allegedly used public funds for her personal comfort and pleasure.
Perhaps the most worrying part of the story is that it took a news report in Le Journal de Montréal to alert the public. For all these years, Canadian Heritage in Ottawa and the Conseil exécutif in Quebec City - the two organizations responsible for the lieutenant-governor - kept reimbursing questionable claims. It's only after the alleged abuses were exposed by Le Journal that the two governments commissioned a joint report by Auditor-General Sheila Fraser and her provincial counterpart. Their findings are so devastating the case is now in the hands of the police. Ms. Thibault, however, has denied any wrongdoing: "Over the 10 years in my position, I always acted in perfectly good faith."
According to the auditors, Ms. Thibault, who received an annual salary of $114,000, misspent more than $700,000 over 10 years. The money went to private parties (including a $4,000 birthday party for a member of her family), as well as golf, ski and fishing excursions. (Ms. Thibault used special devices to ski in a sitting position.)
The former lieutenant-governor - who insisted on being called "Your Excellency" rather than "Your Honour" like her counterparts in other provinces - was also accused of double-dipping. She claimed $129,000 from the federal government for restaurant and hotel expenses even though she received an allocation of $4,800 per month from the provincial government to cover such expenses. Some $44,000 was reimbursed to her team of bodyguards without receipts - allegedly to pay for tips left by them in various hotels. She was reimbursed $12,000 for a return flight on the same day - the reason for the trip was a fishing expedition and a tour of a provincial park.
Meanwhile, her security director received a total of $140,000 for overtime, even when other security guards were on duty. He accompanied Ms. Thibault to golf tournaments (in which he played himself) and ski trips. Actually, Ms. Thibault was so busy with her recreational activities she often was away from Quebec City when her presence was needed to sign laws and decrees.
Better late than never, Premier Jean Charest announced that the new lieutenant-governor, Pierre Duchesne, will be required to account for his expenses once a year in front of members of the National Assembly. But the lack of oversight from the two governments to date has been a scandal in itself.
All this raises the broader question of why provinces should have lieutenant-governors in the first place. Isn't there a simpler way to sanction laws? The Governor-General at least presides over the troops, greets foreign dignitaries, and theoretically could be called as an arbiter in a parliamentary crisis. And, of course, having a Governor-General spares the country the difficult task of having to chose an alternative system for selecting a head of state. But lieutenant-governors are largely useless, albeit expensive, honorary figures.