Duffy, Day 1: ugly side of Senate, PMO
OTTAWA – The trial of Mike Duffy got underway Tuesday with a series of ugly portraits: the senator himself, the prime minister’s former right-hand man and the much-maligned upper chamber as a whole.
The Crown drew a picture of an allegedly corrupt senator who made personal trips on the public dime, paid acquaintances for questionable contracts and extorted the Prime Minister’s Office to cover his fraudulent living expenses.
Defence lawyer Donald Bayne delivered an unflattering snapshot of the country’s highest office, depicting an alleged conspiracy by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s most senior staff to force a sitting senator to repay expenses he never believed were wrong in the first place.
The rules, regulations and administrative policies of the Senate, meanwhile, were portrayed as a lax, vague, anything-goes mess.
As the long-awaited proceedings got underway, it took 15 minutes for the Ontario Court of Justice clerk to read the 31 fraud, breach of trust and bribery charges into the public record.
“I am not guilty, Your Honour,” responded Duffy, clad in a dark pinstripe suit adorned with a white pocket square.
Crown attorney Mark Holmes proceeded to lay out for Ontario Justice Charles Vaillancourt a road map of the prosecution’s case.
The trial is complex, spanning four distinct areas. Each lawyer arrived with stacks of exhibits. Bayne’s binder of internal emails, roughly 15 centimetres thick, landed with a thump on his desk.
The most politically toxic area is the one involving a bribery charge — the allegation that Duffy set a series of conditions before he’d agree to repay $90,000 worth of contested living expenses.
Harper’s former chief of staff Nigel Wright secretly paid that $90,000, while Duffy told the public it was he who had repaid the public purse, back in early 2013.
“Sen. Duffy was at least an equal partner in this arrangement, if not the instigator and the principal party involved in this negotiation,” Holmes said.
But Bayne, quoting from emails and police interviews with witnesses, argued Duffy had in fact been railroaded by a small group of Harper’s staff.
They concocted a scheme, he said, where Duffy would take the blame and pretend to repay his expenses in order to make a political embarrassment go away — the “mistake-repay scenario.”
‘”We are basically forcing … somebody to repay money that they probably didn’t owe, and I wanted the prime minister to know that and be comfortable with that,”‘ said Bayne, quoting from Wright’s interview with police, a full transcript of which has yet to be released.
Police announced in 2014 that they would not pursue charges against Wright, who has always maintained he was acting in the public interest. Wright is expected to appear by teleconference from London, towards the end of the trial in June.
The entire repayment scandal was spurred in the first place by a question that surfaced in late 2012 about Duffy’s status as a senator from Prince Edward Island.
Reporters began asking how much time he actually spent at the place he called his primary residence, while he collected living expenses for his “secondary residence” — in fact his longtime Ottawa-area home.
Holmes said any “common sense” reading of what constitutes a primary residence would indicate that Duffy wasn’t really living in P.E.I.
Bayne scoffed at that notion, reminding Vaillancourt that he must determine a crime was committed based on rules, laws and statutes rather than a subjective term like common sense.
The Senate’s forms for designating primary and secondary residences did not specify any threshold for the declaration, nor does the Constitution explicitly define what constitutes residency for a senator.
“Those criteria, sir, do not and never have included a minimum number of days of residence, or a percentage of the year, or specific seasons of the year, or a relative comparison of time spent time in one location … versus another,” Bayne said.
He took the same position with regard to another set of charges, linked to travel expenses Duffy filed with the Senate, saying that Duffy followed the rules as they existed — as broad as they might be.
Here, the Crown attorney was the most detailed in his outline to the court. He alleged Duffy spent thousands of dollars flying to British Columbia on two separate occasions, pretending to do Senate business but actually visiting his new grandchild or watching his daughter’s theatre production.
In another case, he said Duffy claimed to be visiting Peterborough, Ont., in order to discuss broadcasting policy with then Conservative MP Dean Del Mastro. Instead, Holmes said, Duffy was buying a puppy with his wife Heather.
“Apart from the policies, there is something more fundamental at play and I think it can be reduced to two propositions,” he said.
“One, you can’t steal from your employer; and two, you can’t abuse your position of authority to unjustly enrich yourself.”
Bayne said the puppy story was untrue, and that Duffy always travelled for Senate business first, and combined a family visit if possible — something he was entitled to do.
The last set of charges involves $65,000 in Senate contracts awarded through Duffy’s office budget to various individuals.
The public heard for the first time that although the contract for speechwriting and other services was paid out to Duffy’s friend Gerald Donohue, others were paid monies through that central contract.
A makeup artist, Jacqueline Lambert, was one of those contractors. Holmes said Duffy tried to expense makeup and was turned down by Senate finance officials, prompting him to pay Lambert in a way they could not scrutinize.
Bayne said Lambert was indeed paid for her services, but it had to do with an appearance Duffy was making at a G8 conference in Ontario’s Muskoka region in 2010. He said Lambert also did Harper’s makeup that day — something the Prime Minister’s Office wasn’t immediately able to confirm.
Bayne argued that Duffy might be guilty of “administrative process irregularities,” but the Crown would need to show his actions were criminal. Senators, he added, have wide discretion over how they administer their office spending.
“Sen. Duffy didn’t write these rules, and is not to blame if they seem extraordinarily broad or fuzzy.”
By Jennifer Ditchburn and Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press