Mike Duffy Senate expenses trial set for 41 days starting in April
Parliament Hill buzzing over how 8-week spring trial could affect 2015 election
Suspended Senator Mike Duffy's fraud, bribery and breach of trust case will begin on April 7 and last for 41 days through June, lawyers agreed in court today.
These dates mean it's likely any damaging information for the Harper government will emerge before the next federal election, expected in fall 2015, according to fixed election date legislation.
Duffy was not in court again Tuesday. But his lawyer, Donald Bayne, met briefly with reporters outside after his appearance.
"We trust that the evidence will show Senator Duffy is innocent of these charges," Bayne said.
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No pleas were entered in court Tuesday. But the CBC's Hannah Thibedeau reports from the courthouse that when Bayne first stood up in court, he said Duffy would plead not guilty to all 31 of the charges against him.
Bayne told reporters after the first court date last week that Duffy wanted to skip preliminary hearings and proceed straight to trial, in part because his health was not good.
The trial is set for April 7-May 12, and then June 1-19 and will be heard by judge alone.
Thibedeau said that it may have been difficult to find 12 impartial jurors who didn't have an opinion of Duffy, the Senate or the Harper government in general.
Harper insiders among expected witnesses
The arguments at trial are expected to be complicated, with multiple charges based on various contracts and interpretations of rules and legislation.
Over the more than eight weeks, many witnesses could be called, including individuals who have served or continue to serve at the heart of the Harper government.
Thibedeau said the trial is expected to feature "mounds of testimony, lots of documents," and the witness list "will be a political who's who here in Ottawa, including Senate leadership ... as well as main aides around the prime minister including Nigel Wright, the former chief of staff to the prime minister."
Wright, who now lives and works in London, U.K. for Onex Corporation, has kept his own counsel since the Duffy affair began, and his eventual testimony under oath is hotly anticipated.
Keith Beardsley, who served as a deputy chief of staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper for five years, told CBC News last week that the closer the trial is to the next federal election expected in 2015, the more damaging the information that could come out at trial may be for the Conservatives.
"There will be great incentive I suspect for Mr. Harper to try to get out of town before the decision comes down and before all the evidence has been heard," said NDP House Leader Nathan Cullen Tuesday.
"This is going to be damning evidence for the Conservative Party, for Mr. Harper personally," Cullen said. "This is what brings governments down."
Cullen said he's been noticing signs of a possible early spring election. "I think the Duffy trial being as early as it is will probably add one more reason in the early column over at the PMO [prime minister's office] when they're arguing this thing out."
But Liberal MP Sean Casey, who, like Duffy, represents Prince Edward Island, thinks the April court date leaves no room for a spring election before the testimony starts.
"It's too tight," Casey said. "I thought it would be too obvious to schedule the election around the trial and this takes it off the table."
'Not our baggage'
Duffy's 31 criminal charges relate to his Senate housing and travel expense claims and a $90,000 "gift" that Wright gave to Duffy when controversy emerged and the former Tory senator was under a lot of political pressure to pay taxpayers back.
The prime minister on many occasions has insisted that he knew nothing of the plan to repay Duffy's expenses.
"Canadians want to know how is it possible that a bunch of people very close to the prime minister could cook up a bribe and walk away scot-free while the person receiving the bribe is up on charges," said NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus.
"We've seen the prime minister has already broken his promise on election dates once, but I think it would be a huge mistake for the prime minister to outrun Duffy this time," Angus said.
But Treasury Board President Tony Clement dismissed talk that the trial could play into election timing, saying the public "doesn't really care about all that rumour-mongering."
"I think Mr. Harper and our government will be judged on other things," he said.
"I think people have already made up their minds on Mr. Duffy," added Clement. "They think he's a bad guy, he's done some bad things. It's sad because he had such a good reputation going in. But that's the reality of it."
"We've taken a very clear position that we don't accept that these activities have a place in the Canadian Senate or the Canadian Parliament so I think that's the end of the matter," Clement said. "It's not our baggage, it's his baggage."
With files from Julie Van Dusen