Politics

Mike Duffy trial: Other senators pre-signed travel claim forms, Senate aide says

A current aide to the Senate's Speaker has testified that two senators she previously worked for pre-signed blank travel claim forms, a system the former executive assistant to Mike Duffy has said was also practised in their office.

Idea evolved in an 'organic way,' says aide to Senate's Speaker

Suspended Senator Mike Duffy and his lawyer Donald Bayne arrive for day 33 of Duffy's fraud trial. 0:46

A current aide to the Senate's Speaker has testified that two senators she previously worked for pre-signed blank travel claim forms, a system the former executive assistant to Mike Duffy has said was also practised in their office.

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 with money from the prime minister's then chief of staff, Nigel Wright.

​The suspended senator's trial, which began April 7 in the Ontario court of justice, is in its 33rd day.

Loren Cicchini testified on Monday that she had former Conservative senators Michael Meighen and JoAnne Buth pre-sign the blank travel claims before any details about trips had been provided on the documents.

Cicchini, who currently works in the office of Senate Speaker Leo Housakos, said it was only done with "routine" travel claims because it was more efficient. She said the idea evolved in an "organic way,"  and that she didn't tell Senate finance about this system.

'Not right to pre-sign'

"And it's not something that I would have volunteered, because I was aware that ... it's not right to pre-sign something." She added that this system was not employed with Housakos.

Last week, Duffy's former executive assistant Melanie Mercer testified that she got the idea to have Duffy pre-sign a stack of travel claim forms during a meeting in 2009 with Cicchini and Gillian Rokosh, who at the time was executive assistant for then senator Trevor Eyton. 

Mercer, who had just started working for Duffy, said Rokosh presented the idea, and Cicchini appeared to be in agreement with it.

Under questioning from Donald Bayne, Duffy's lawyer, Mercer had said that Cicchini had been assigned by Senate administration to be Mercer's teacher and that she was to shadow Cicchini. Bayne stressed that Mercer, by getting Duffy to pre-sign the travel claims, was effectively following the advice and procedures practised by her instructor.

But on Monday, Cicchini testified she was never assigned such a role and was never asked to train Mercer. She said that if Mercer came by with questions, she'd answer them to the best of her ability or suggest she call her financial clerk in Senate finance. 

'No real formal training'

"There's no real formal training available at that time for senator staff. The only training available is really on your own and through information that finance provides," Cicchini said.

Cicchini also said she couldn't recall a meeting with her, Rokosh and Mercer in which the topic of pre-signed travel claim forms came up.

Bayne hammered away, raising questions about Cicchini's ability to remember a meeting six years ago, asking whether it was possible that they could have had the conversation about pre-signing the travel claims.

"I think if Gillian had said it I would remember," Cicchini said.

"You think you would," Bayne responded.

"I have no recollection of Gillian ever saying that," Cicchini said.

But Bayne, focusing on whether Cicchini was Mercer's teacher, did get Cicchini to confirm that she took Mercer around to meet other Senate staff members and administrative assistants.

Cicchini also agreed with Bayne that Cicchini learned how to do her job "in part from your experienced colleagues."

"And similarly, whether officially assigned or not, Melanie  learned in part from her experienced colleagues like you. She came to you with questions and you helped her out when you could answer them."

Cicchini agreed.

Earlier, Bayne had sought to dismiss any apparent contradiction between the testimony of Senate finance clerk Maggie Bourgeau and Mercer,

Last week, Mercer told court that she and Duffy had a meeting with Bourgeau, in which Bourgeau spoke about the primary residence declaration form. Mercer testified that Bourgeau was helpful with providing her with guidance.

But on Friday, Bourgeau, who was responsible for reviewing the expense claims of the suspended senator, said she couldn't remember having this discussion.

"I do not remember sitting down with Melanie or having this conversation with Ms. Mercer concerning the primary residency," Bourgeau told Bayne on Monday.

"I understand you don't recall that," Bayne said.

"Isn't the fairest answer exactly that 'I don't remember. It's possible but I don't remember?'"

"Right," Bourgeau conceded.

The defence seems to be making the case that Bourgeau provided guidance to Duffy on residency issues.

Residency is one of the central issues in the case against Duffy. He designated his home in P.E.I. as his primary residence, making him eligible to claim meals and living expenses for his time in Ottawa, even though he has lived and worked in Canada's capital since the 1970s. The Crown contends that Duffy should not have been eligible for those claims.

Comments

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.