- Guilty of fraud over $5,000
- Guilty of breach of trust by a public official
- Not guilty of obstruction of justice
- Sentencing hearing: May 10
- Lavigne's lawyers considering appeal
Senator Raymond Lavigne has been blocked from spending any more of the Senate's money after he was found guilty Friday of fraud and breach of trust by a public official.
The charges were related to making false travel expense claims and having his staff do work on his personal property during Senate hours.
Hours after an Ontario Superior Court judge delivered his decision in an Ottawa courtroom, the Senate announced it has suspended Lavigne's right to use its resources for his parliamentary duties. His research, office, travel and telecommunications budgets are all on hold, and the senator remains on a leave of absence and barred from entering the upper chamber.
A statement from the Senate said the measures are effective immediately and when it resumes sitting March 21, the Senate will discuss further actions.
The actions taken by the Senate's committee of internal economy, budgets and administration mean Lavigne no longer gets a travel allowance or reimbursement for living expenses in the Ottawa area; his BlackBerry and website have been disabled; his phone and fax lines cut off; his credit card is cancelled and his account for office supplies is closed.
Until now, Lavigne had still been claiming thousands of dollars worth of travel and office expenses despite his leave of absence while facing the charges laid nearly four years ago.
Judge Robert Smith found Lavigne guilty of defrauding the government of $10,120.50 related to false and inflated mileage claims for 54 car trips between Ottawa and Montreal. In some cases, reimbursement claims were made when his assistant drove his own car and Lavigne wasn't a passenger.
Smith also found the 65-year-old senator guilty of using his public position for personal financial gain. According to the court decision, the senator had his assistant cut down about 60 trees over a period of weeks on Lavigne's property during work hours, while being paid by taxpayers. Lavigne did this in order to save money, according to the judge.
"I find that using a research assistant to cut down 60 trees on a lot owned personally by the senator while being paid by the Senate during regular working hours constitutes a serious and marked departure from the standard expected of a Senator who holds a position of public trust," Smith said in his decision.
Lavigne was acquitted on a third charge of obstruction of justice: He was accused of asking his staff to lie when the Senate began asking questions about his conduct.
As the judge was delivering his lengthy verdicts, Lavigne sat in the front row of the courtroom, arms crossed, with his wife seated beside him. He did not comment as he left the courtroom, but his lawyer told reporters he is considering an appeal of the convictions.
'Nobody is above the law'
Supt. Stephane Bonin, the lead investigator in the case, told reporters the verdicts show "nobody is above the law," and reaffirms the RCMP's role in investigating financial crime, "in order to preserve the public's confidence in their institutions." Bonin is now head of financial crime investigations in Quebec.
A sentencing hearing was set for May 10 at 10 a.m. The maximum sentence on the fraud charge is 14 years in jail, with a maximum five years on the breach of trust conviction, Bonin said.
Lavigne is the first senator to face trial since Conservative Michel Cogger was tried over allegations of influence peddling in the 1990s. Cogger was eventually given an absolute discharge in 2001, but resigned from the Senate.
Lavigne's conviction comes as two of his Senate colleagues, Conservatives Doug Finley and Irving Gerstein, prepare to defend themselves against charges they face from Elections Canada over the in-and-out advertising scheme. The first court hearing in the case related to the senators and two other Conservative party officials is set for next Friday.
Opposition MPs have been calling on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to suspend the senators while they are facing charges. The NDP was quick to renew that call Friday when reacting to Lavigne's conviction. NDP MP Pat Martin said the actions taken by the Senate to block Lavigne's access to resources should have been done years ago.
"I hope the Senate goes the next step and drop-kicks him out of the Senate," he told reporters.
Lavigne, a former Liberal MP, was charged by the RCMP in August 2007, and was later censured by his Senate colleagues. Lavigne was kicked out of the Liberal caucus and for nearly four years now he has not been allowed to sit on Senate committees or enter the upper chamber without special permission from the Speaker.
As his case has dragged through the courts, Lavigne has been allowed to continue to spend thousands of dollars in public funds. Since 2007, he has charged taxpayers more than $10,000 a month in travel, hospitality and office expenses. That spending is on top of his $133,000 a year salary.
Continued to bill expenses
Government documents reveal that in one three-month period last fall, Lavigne billed taxpayers $30,787 in expenses. He spent $8,400 in travel, $17,708 in office costs and $4,528 for living expenses in the Ottawa area, according to the documents.
Since he was barred from the Senate in 2007, Lavigne has cost taxpayers more than $700,000.
The Quebec senator first became the subject of an RCMP investigation in 2006 because of complaints from his neighbours in Wakefield, Que., about 40 kilometres northwest of Ottawa, about the trees being cut down.
A Senate committee also looked into the allegations and determined that Lavigne misused government funds. He was subsequently expelled from the Liberal caucus and asked to pay back $23,500 to the Senate, which he did.
As an MP, Lavigne represented the Montreal-area riding of Verdun–Saint-Henri–Saint-Paul–Pointe Saint-Charles. He was first elected in 1993 and re-elected in 1997 and 2000. Before politics he was a Montreal businessman.
Former prime minister Jean Chrétien appointed Lavigne to the Senate in 2002 and he is eligible to remain until 2020.
This story has been edited from an earlier version to correct the spelling of Michel Cogger's name.Jan 06, 2012 10:48 AM ET