Nigel Wright, the prime minister's former chief of staff, led a scheme that would force Mike Duffy to admit he made mistakes regarding his Senate expenses and make it appear he had repaid $90,000, the lawyer representing the suspended senator told an Ottawa court today.
Donald Bayne made the accusation on the opening day of Duffy's trial on charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery.
Both Duffy's lawyer and lead Crown prosecutor Mark Holmes laid out their prospective cases. Bayne, who spoke in the afternoon, repeatedly referred to the prosecutor's opening statement, which contended that Duffy was an equal partner in the arrangement of the $90,000 payment, if not the instigator.
Among the charges he faces, the 68-year-old Duffy, who represents P.E.I., is facing one count of bribery related to the $90,000 payment.
"Seldom has an extorted person been called an equal partner," Bayne said, adding that Duffy neither demanded nor received any bribe.
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He said Duffy was pressured by a small group of political operatives, led by Wright, to capitulate to their scheme that would have Duffy admit publicly to a mistake in order to stem the political fallout when problems were raised with expenses the senator had claimed. Admitting to making the repayment, said Bayne, was the culmination of this "conspiratorial strategy."
But Bayne said Duffy never believed he made a mistake in claiming those living expenses and the evidence will show that Wright himself suggested that Duffy was "probably entitled" to those expense claims.
Bayne said that even the prime minister, according to Wright, gave the go-ahead to the scheme, again in an effort to contain the fallout.
Bayne said the charges against his client suggest that the suspended senator has been unjustly targeted.
"Mike Duffy has been singled out here," Bayne said.
Referring to the rules that regulate Senate expenses, Bayne said sarcastically, "It's not a book of common sense, but it is a book that governs the Senate."
Bayne suggested that Duffy might not even have breached Senate rules, much less be guilty of criminal charges.
He began with the issue of expenses claimed for Duffy's primary home. Duffy designated his home in P.E.I. as his primary residence, and maintains that's the case, making him eligible to claim meals and living expenses for his time in Ottawa, even though he has lived in Canada's capital since the 1970s for work.
Bayne said the living expenses Duffy claimed were legitimate and within the Senate rules and guidelines.
"Nothing deceitful or devious, all handed to the Senate for their verification," he said.
Bayne stressed that the role of the criminal court is not to rewrite rules or fill in the gaps if the rules are "found lacking."
Earlier, Duffy pleaded not guilty to 30 charges of fraud and breach of trust, and one count of bribery. The Crown's case centres around Duffy's travel claims, contracts and the $90,000 he received from Nigel Wright, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's former chief of staff.
"I am not guilty, your honour," Duffy told the court as his trial got underway Tuesday morning.
The maximum penalty for fraud or breach of trust by a public official is five years in prison.
The RCMP allege Duffy wrongly claimed his living allowance and other expenses from the time he was appointed until an outside audit was ordered to look into the claims.
"The focus of the trial is the claims for compensation as a result of this extra travel, which the senator contends he had to undertake. But the theory of the Crown is that he didn't undertake any extra travel," Crown prosecutor Holmes said in his opening statements.
"Apart from the policies, there is something more fundamental at play. One, you can't steal from your employers, and two, you can't abuse your position of authority to unjustly enrich yourself."
Holmes suggested the residency requirements for a senator meant that Duffy was probably ineligible to be one for Prince Edward Island.
Senators and MPs who live more than 100 kilometres outside the National Capital Region are allowed to claim up to $22,000 to cover their accommodations and meals when they're in Ottawa, since they're also expected to maintain a home in the province from which they are appointed — their primary residence.
Holmes said that a house Duffy owns in P.E.I. was uninhabitable and that he doesn't believe spending summers on the island counts as far as establishing primary residency.
Duffy gave money 'as he saw fit': Crown
Holmes then tackled the question of Duffy's contracts, and those affiliated with the senator's friend, Gerald Donohue. The RCMP alleged Donohue was paid $65,000 for "little or no apparent work."
Holmes contended that the contract was effectively a clearinghouse for Duffy to hand out money "as he saw fit," and a "reserve pool over which there was no possibility of financial oversight."
Holmes also questioned the legitimacy of some of Duffy's travel claims, including one to a festival in Saanich, B.C., that also included watching a child perform at a show, and a trip to a kennel with then Conservative MP Dean Del Mastro to pick out a puppy. Holmes also claimed that Duffy expensed a family trip as Senate business.
Holmes then turned to the bribery charge, which involves a $90,000 payment Duffy received from Wright. Holmes said Duffy was at least an equal partner in the arrangement, if not the instigator
Wright resigned after a media report revealed he provided a $90,000 cheque used to repay the living expenses that Duffy had claimed since being appointed by Harper
With files from Reuters, the Canadian Press