Mike Duffy trial finally makes key players explain Senate expenses affair

With MPs out of town on an extended Easter break, Mike Duffy's fraud and bribery trial will be the main show in town beginning Tuesday, Chris Hall writes. It may take a while, but you can expect the courtroom to out-do question period as a place for answers.

Courtroom expected to out-do question period as a place for answers

When lawyers arrive at the Ottawa courthouse Tuesday for the long-awaited start of the Mike Duffy trial, they'll be armed with the equivalent of advanced degrees in the rules governing Senate expenses. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Mike Duffy will swap the Senate for an Ottawa courtroom on Tuesday, when his trial on fraud and bribery opens in what is likely to be the most extensively-covered, heavily-chronicled political event before the fall election.

For the next two weeks in particular the trial will be the only show in town as Parliament adjourns for Easter.

That should guarantee that reporters who normally devour the ins and outs of politics will be consumed by the ups and downs of Duffy, the affable former journalist turned hard-edged partisan.

The suspended senator is accused of billing taxpayers for expenses he was not entitled to claim, including appearances at partisan political events across the country and meals eaten in the Ottawa-area home he had owned for years.

He's also accused of accepting a bribe in the form of a $90,000 cheque from the prime minister's former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, to repay those expenses, and of hiring a friend and former colleague as a consultant who, RCMP investigators say, did little of the work required under the contracts.

Duffy denies doing anything wrong, most memorably from the floor of the Senate in late 2013.

In an impassioned, flawless performance befitting his many years as one of this country's top TV journalists, Duffy said he followed the Senate's opaque expense rules on primary versus secondary residences; and he accused the prime minister's office of orchestrating a monstrous conspiracy against him, demanding he repay the $90,000 against his will, and demanding that he follow a script written for him by PMO underlings, the ones he called "the kids in short pants down the hall."

The job of sorting through the mountains of documents, the emails and invoices and the conflicting versions of what happened and who's to blame falls to Ontario Superior Court Justice Charles Vaillancourt.

There is no jury of peers here, in no small part because fraud cases are so complex, where the Crown's burden of proof rests as much on the unblinking greyness of documents as the imperfect recall of witnesses.

Crime and politics

Despite the obvious political overtones this is, first and foremost, a criminal trial. Prosecutor Mark Holmes and defence lawyer Don Bayne will stick to that mantra. For them, Duffy's innocence or guilt is all that matters.

But the political implications can't be avoided, and there will surely be more than enough fodder for reporters and Stephen Harper's political opponents to emerge during the trial.

Donald Bayne, the lawyer for suspended Senator Mike Duffy, is almost certain to dissect the Senate's many idiosyncratic rules. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Just look at how the Duffy affair has unfolded since early 2013, as Harper's aides, key senators and others sought to contain the political damage caused by the first news reports of his expense claims.

That they failed is obvious. Duffy and two other senators have been charged, a fourth, another former journalist, Pamela Wallin, remains under police investigation.

As well, Auditor General Michael Ferguson continues his probe of all senators' expenses, an exercise that news reports just this week suggested could force dozens of them to repay tens of thousands of dollars in improper expenses.

It's no stretch to expect the RCMP to take an interest in at least some of them.

But those aren't the only things that make this case so noteworthy.

To start, criminal lawyers say the release of hundreds of pages of judicial production orders sought by the RCMP was unusual, if not unprecedented.

In those orders, RCMP investigators set out in painstaking detail what they were after, from credit card statements to emails, to build the case against Duffy.

Investigators also laid out in great detail the allegations they were making, and the evidence they'd already collected.

Man overboard

Whatever impact these manoeuvres might have on the presiding judge is impossible to know, but they did help shape public opinion about Duffy.

Among the items made public: correspondence between lawyers representing Duffy and the prime minister's office discussing, among other things, the conditions for repayment of the $90,000.

The court orders included binders of emails kept by Nigel Wright, setting out in exquisite detail the lengths that he and a half dozen senior PMO staff and a number of Conservative senators went to try to make a political problem disappear.

Good to go? Nigel Wright, the prime minister's former chief of staff paid $90,000 out of his own pocket to make the Duffy problem go away. It didn't work. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"I think this is going to end badly," Wright wrote to a select group of staffers on Feb 6, 2013. On that, at least, there is no dispute.

The Duffy affair would cost Wright his job and tarnish his reputation to the point where the prime minister, who went from calling Wright's actions an error to an act of deception.       

It also plunged the government into months of ineffectual damage control, and while Conservatives don't seem overly worried about what may unfold at the trial, the proceedings may well shape what voters' decide in October.

The trial will be the first time Canadians will hear from many now former members of the prime minister's staff, officials who spent so much of their work time in 2013 trying to contain a political problem rather than advancing the government's agenda.

'Good to go'

The prime minister isn't expected to be a witness in the trial, and he's said repeatedly that he was unaware of Wright's decision to repay Duffy's expenses until May 15, 2013.

The RCMP's lead investigator, Cpl. Greg Horton, wrote in a production order dated Nov. 15, 2013 that he has seen "no evidence that the prime minister was involved in having Senator Duffy's legal bill paid.''

But that leads to one of the most perplexing issues throughout the long affair: what did Wright mean in an email written Feb. 22 that he wanted to speak to Harper before finalizing Duffy's repayment agreement.

Less than an hour later, Wright follows up in another email. "We are good to go from the PM…"

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair has seized on that line in question period.

"Good to go, with what?" he demanded of Harper. "Good to go with Duffy repaying the money,'' was the prime minister's answer.

Harper's been less clear on what Wright meant in another email, this one dated May 14,  the day before the prime minister says he finally learned Wright had made the repayment. "The prime minister knows, in broad terms only, that I personally assisted Duffy when I was getting him to repay the expenses.''

Question period may be a lousy place for getting answers. A courtroom is an entirely different setting.

Bayne is certain to demand answers from Wright about exactly what he said to the prime minister, and what he meant in those emails.

Duffy's trial is scheduled to run 41 days, ending in June. The judge's decision may or may not come before the scheduled Oct. 19 election.

A verdict in the court of public opinion may be swifter. For Duffy. And for the prime minister who appointed him.


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. Follow him on Twitter: @chrishallcbc


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Account Holder

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?