Politics·Analysis

Mike Duffy's the one on trial, but blame and shame abound

Mike Duffy's trial may be only a few days into an extended run, but it's already clear none of the principal figures in this case is going to emerge from it for the better. Not Duffy. Not Stephen Harper. Not Nigel Wright. Not the Senate itself.

Now suspended senator was a prized asset, until his expenses became a political nightmare

In May 2010, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Senator Mike Duffy speak to young people attending the G8/G20 National Youth Caucus on Parliament Hill. In naming Duffy to the Senate in 2008, Harper found a valuable asset for the Conservative Party, until things came crashing down. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Mike Duffy's trial may be only a few days into an extended run, but it's already clear none of the principal figures in this case is going to emerge from it for the better.

Not Duffy. Not Stephen Harper. Not Harper's former chief of staff Nigel Wright. Not the Senate itself.

The now suspended senator may ultimately be cleared of criminal wrongdoing on some or even all of the 31 charges he faces. He's innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Just three days in, there are already some doubts, meticulously raised by his lawyer, Donald Bayne, about whether the Senate's arcane and largely unpoliced residency rules were broken by Duffy.

But innocent of wrongdoing is not the same thing as being innocent of exploiting those rules to your advantage.

Duffy's own calendar shows he didn't even wait to be officially sworn in as a senator to file his first expense claim, or to meet with Senate officials for an orientation session that, the court heard this week, included a briefing on ways to ensure the residency requirements are met.

Bayne portrayed his client as a rookie, unfamiliar with the ins and outs of the Senate and its forms. Bayne said the former broadcaster filled out his residency declaration in good faith in listing P.E.I. as his primary residence, arguing the Constitution Act requires senators to list their primary residence in the province they are appointed to represent.

What he didn't highlight is that Duffy, at the height of the expense scandal in 2013, crossed out the words "primary" and "secondary" in his annual declaration.

Mike Duffy made alterations to his Senate residence declaration form at the height of the expenses controversy, striking the words 'primary' and 'secondary' next to his P.E.I. and Ottawa residences. (CBC News)

It's hard to imagine Duffy — the former host of a daily political television news show who'd spent years in and around Parliament Hill — giving any politician the same benefit of the doubt he's seeking here.

Crown prosecutor Mark Holmes argues the evidence will show Duffy really lived in the Ottawa-area the whole time, in a house he'd bought five years before he became a senator, but still charged taxpayers about $82,000 in travel and living expenses.

"Senator Duffy didn't have to complete that form at all," Holmes told the court. "It's only completed to get compensation."

And Holmes went further. He suggested Duffy probably wasn't eligible to be appointed as a senator from Prince Edward Island in the first place, because he'd lived in Ontario for decades.

That little detail didn't stop Harper from doing exactly that in December 2008, when, faced with possible defeat by a Liberal/NDP coalition, the prime minister filled 18 vacancies in the Senate in an orgy of appointments, just to ensure the Liberals wouldn't get a chance to do it.

Duffy raised funds, hosted events

Residency, apparently, was not a concern. The truth is the prime minister, and the Conservative Party, got from Duffy exactly what they wanted. Here was a broadcaster recognized by Canadians across the country, a guy who could spin a yarn with the kind of folksy appeal Harper could rarely muster, a guy who would help the party raise thousands of dollars at a pop.

When the prime minister was selling his 2009 economic update, Bayne told the court, it wasn't a cabinet minister on the stage with Harper. It was Mike Duffy.

This photo of Stephen Harper and Mike Duffy at a 2009 event was entered as evidence by Duffy's lawyer Thursday. Harper signed the photo, 'To Duff, A great journalist and a great senator. Thanks for being one of my best, hardest-working appointments ever!' (PMO Photo/CBC)

But then it all came crashing down. The expense scandal made this once important political asset a liability. Duffy was expelled from the Conservative caucus, suspended from the Senate in a move demanded by the Prime Minister's Office. And the wagons circled at the PMO.

Harper won't be a witness at this trial. He's denied any role in the efforts inside his own office to get Duffy to repay the expenses.

But he will certainly face renewed questions about that. Wright, his former chief of staff, has told police he went to Harper in February 2013 to sign off on a deal, telling him at least this much: that they were forcing Duffy to repay money that he was legally entitled to claim.

For Harper, this wasn't a legal issue. It was a political problem. And, as Wright reported to his colleagues, the prime minister was "good to go" with the deal to fix it.

As we know now, the deal fell through, and Wright would eventually repay the money himself, a fact Harper says he didn't know until May 15, 2013 — even though Wright wrote to colleagues a day earlier that "the prime minister knows, in broad terms only, that I assisted Duffy" in making a repayment Wright believed Duffy might not actually owe under the Senate's rules.

Judge Charles Vaillancourt will hear a lot about those rules in the coming days. He'll no doubt be told that the auditor general is going through every senator's expenses. His report is expected before this trial ends in June.

Vaillancourt will hear even more about why Duffy's apparently ineligible expenses were reimbursed by the Senate's finance office, perhaps even why no one in the Senate ever flagged questions about whether the "Ol' Duff," as he often called himself, was even qualified to represent P.E.I.

Only Duffy's on trial here. Only Duffy's accused of breaking the law. Even if there's more than enough blame in this whole affair to go around.

About the Author

Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.

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