Mike Duffy testimony reveals more details, but Crown avoids $90K cheque

Anyone who had been expecting Mike Duffy to drop a political bombshell will surely feel disappointed by his testimony. Instead, court mostly heard the senator provide expanded explanations to many arguments that had already been advanced by his lawyer.
Senator Mike Duffy has pleaded not guilty to 31 charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery related to expenses he claimed as a senator and later repaid in March 2013 with $90,000 from Nigel Wright, who at the time was chief of staff for then prime minister Stephen Harper. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

In his eight days of testimony, six of those spent being questioned by his lawyer Donald Bayne, Senator Mike Duffy did admit to some wrongdoing — he conceded that he had inadvertently billed taxpayers for about seven bucks worth of expenses related to two personal photos.

As for everything else  —  the housing allowance for his Ottawa residence, the controversial travel claims and series of expenses paid through his former colleague — for all those Duffy repeatedly insisted he had followed the rules of the Senate and had broken no laws.

Duffy has pleaded not guilty to 31 charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery related to expenses he claimed as a senator and later repaid in March 2013 with $90,000 from Nigel Wright, who at the time was chief of staff for then prime minister Stephen Harper.

Anyone who had been expecting Duffy to drop a political bombshell will surely feel disappointed by his testimony. Instead, court mostly heard the senator provide expanded explanations to many arguments that had already been advanced by Bayne.

There was a curious sidetrack into some political intrigue. Duffy briefly recounted a story he heard about alleged Conservative party operatives, or a "black ops group" as he referred to them, who had deliberately misdirected voters in a Vancouver Island riding in 2008.

But when it came to more revelations about the Prime Minister's Office scheme to have him admit he had mistakenly claimed his housing expenses and that he would pay them back, Duffy's testimony was mostly focussed on the intense pressure he said was put on him to accept this scenario, against his will, and quash the political controversy.

Senator Mike Duffy was questioned by his defence lawyer Donald Bayne at his criminal trial in Ottawa for six days. (Greg Banning/Canadian Press)

Duffy testified that he knew, as did members of the PMO, including the prime minister himself, that he had done nothing wrong by claiming those housing expenses. He said he finally capitulated under the threat of losing his job. 

It was this scheme that culminated with the $90,000 cheque being written by Harper's then chief of staff Nigel Wright to cover Duffy's controversial expenses. However even on this, Duffy had little more to add, saying he had no idea that Wright had paid off his expenses, thinking they had been covered by the party's fund. (In 2013, Duffy told the Senate that Wright had told him that he would write the cheque.)

And if anyone benefited from this scheme, it was Harper, not himself, Duffy said.

Most curious, and somewhat surprising to courtroom observers, was Crown prosecutor Mark Holmes' decision not to cross-examine Duffy on the bribery charges.

"The Crown has an obligation to cross on an allegation that they seek a conviction for," said Toronto-based criminal lawyer Joseph Neuberger. "And failure to cross on that set of allegations is most likely due to the Crown accepting that they are not able to get a conviction on that charge."

The Crown also never asked Duffy questions about his arrangement to have his colleague Gerald Donohue pay for some of his expenses. It's the Crown's contention that Duffy set up a fund with Donohue to pay for some inappropriate or non-parliamentary services — expenses that the Crown says wouldn't otherwise have been covered by Senate finance.

Donohue a 'general contractor'

But Duffy, under questioning from his lawyer Donald Bayne, defended his arrangement with Donohue, saying his colleague was a "general contractor" who would sub-contract out work, and that the pay structure was valid.

The Crown never questioned Duffy, right about an infamous $90,000 payment from Nigel Wright to cover his Senate expenses. (Canadian Press)

Court also heard the path Duffy said he took to being appointed a senator as he rejected stories that had percolated for years including talk that he had lobbied for the position. 

Instead, he testified that his appointment was instigated by the prime minister who had invited him to his office to ask his opinions on the Senate while Duffy was working as political news host with CTV. 

* When the idea of Duffy becoming a senator was broached, he said he told Harper he wanted to be appointed to Ontario, a suggestion, Duffy said, the prime minister flatly rejected. Duffy testified that he cautioned Harper that his appointment to P.E.I. could cause political waves among Conservatives in that province. But later, under questioning by Holmes, Duffy said he also wanted to be in Ontario for health reasons.

Duffy there to 'friendraise'

Duffy said he was sent out to party events to "friendraise." He had been told by a Harper aide, he testified, that Conservatives were looking to appoint people with a national profiles like Duffy to "expand the pool of accessible voters" in order to win a majority government  and provide "third-party validation" for Harper as someone Canadians could trust.

As for his housing allowances, Duffy said it was Conservative Senator David Tkachuk who had told him it was "essential" that he claim those allowances for his Ottawa residence, even though Duffy had lived in the nation's capital for years. To do otherwise, Duffy said Tkachuk told him, would put him out of step with other senators making the same claims.

Duffy also provided fuller explanations for some of his expense claims. The $1,500 billed for photos and picture enhancements, for example, were all legitimate, said Duffy, part of "Senate memorabilia" and part of Senate related business. 

He did admit, however, that two pictures that cost about $7, including one of his daughter and grandson, were mistakenly expensed to the Senate.

The more than $10,000 he billed to the taxpayers for fitness trainer Mike Croskery was for consulting on a Senate project to improve fitness in senior Canadians, he said. Croskery, he said, used him as a "guinea pig" as they tried to work out a program that would be beneficial to seniors. Had he wanted fitness training, Duffy said, he could have used the parliamentary gym for free. 

This was one of the few expenses the Crown cross-examined Duffy about, asking him if he had read the other Senate reports on fitness. The suggestion, while not stated, was that Duffy knew the Senate had already done work on this issue and that his consulting story lacked credibility But Duffy said there was nothing in those reports that precluded him from going forward with his own project.

Kept focus narrow

Instead of going through each charge, as Bayne had done, Holmes kept his focus narrow. He grilled Duffy about his P.E.I. residency claims and why he had said he was a resident of Ontario in tax forms. Duffy said his accountant told him it would be illegal to say he was from P.E.I. since he worked in Ontario.

Holmes also asked Duffy about a 2009 trip the senator said he took to attend a B.C. fair on behalf of a Conservative MP. Duffy, who also visited his family while there, denied the travel was for personal benefit.

Duffy was also quizzed about his practice of pre-signing blank travel claim forms, something Duffy said was widespread among senators.

But for everything else, and presumably, the bribery case related to the $90,000 cheque, the Crown will leave that for closing arguments, scheduled to commence on Feb. 22.

With files from The Canadian Press