Mike Duffy trial: What we have learned so far

The Mike Duffy trial had been allotted 41 days, but after nearly seven weeks of testimony, the Crown is still deep into building its case against the suspended senator.

Defence has yet to present its case as the trial heads into its 3rd phase

Suspended 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 with money from Wright. The trial is on hiatus until August, when the prime minister's former chief of staff Nigel Wright will testify. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The Mike Duffy trial had been allotted 41 days, but after nearly seven weeks of testimony in an Ottawa court, the Crown is still deep into building its case against the suspended senator.

In fact, when the case resumes in August after a two-month hiatus, the trial will hear from its first key witness — Prime Minister Stephen Harper's former chief of staff Nigel Wright.

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 Wright.

During the first 35 days of the trial, the Crown has, unsurprisingly, focused on the bulk of the case, the charges of fraud.

Senate rules, such as they are

Some of that approach has made for some very dry testimony, as top Senate administrative officials took the witness box, at times questioned for days over the various reports and manuals related to Senate rules and regulations.

But the evidence is key, because for the Crown to prove fraud (and by extension breach of trust) it must prove that Duffy clearly broke Senate rules by expensing claims that were not for "parliamentary business."

Those expenses include Duffy's per diem claims while living in Ottawa (the Crown alleges his primary residence is not P.E.I., as Duffy claims, making him ineligible for those claims),  his travel expenses for flights around the country and the expenses he paid for some services through his former associate Gerald Donohue.

Some of those flights, the Crown alleges, have been for functions unrelated to parliamentary business, including partisan Conservative party fundraisers, visits to family members, attendance at funerals of friends, and, in one instance, a visit to a Peterborough, Ont., fair to purchase a dog.

Court also heard that on at least two occasions, while Duffy was being investigated by the RCMP, he sent out emails explaining his version of a trip that had come under the scrutiny of the force.

The travel claim forms themselves have been a subject for the court, as former executive assistants to senators, including Duffy, testified they regularly had their bosses pre-sign the blank claims to expedite the administrative process.

Most intriguing aspect

Certainly the most intriguing aspect of the case so far has been the arrangement Duffy had with his former associate Gerald Donohue, who was awarded by Duffy nearly $65,000 worth of Senate contracts to perform editorial and consulting services for the senator.

The RCMP allege Donohue did little or no work for those contracts. Instead, that pool of money, the Crown alleges, was used to pay for a number of expenses incurred by Duffy that the Senate would not have covered.

Court has heard from a series of witnesses who received these cheques from Donohue's family-owned business, Maple Ridge Media, which later evolved into Ottawa ICF. The Crown has zeroed in on some of these expenses, including costs for a personal fitness trainer, makeup expenses, and claims for personal photos.

Although Donohue is a key figure, the trial has yet to hear from him. The Crown has said that his health issues have made it difficult to arrange times for his appearance. However, it's also possible that it may never call Donohue, satisfied that it has made its case without his testimony. 

And while motive may not be needed to prove a case, the Crown seemed to suggest this week that Duffy's alleged criminal activity may have been prompted, in part, by his financial situation.

Court heard from a forensic accountant who testified that over the period Duffy was senator, he was withdrawing more money from his bank account than depositing, all the while covering the balance with his line of credit. 

Duffy's lawyer fights back

It was a suggestion, like all the allegations heard so far against Duffy, rejected by Duffy's lawyer Donald Bayne. While Crown prosecutors Mark Holmes and Jason Neubauer have split the duties of the case, Bayne has been the sole vocal advocate for Duffy, arguing, objecting and sometimes presenting multiple defences for particular charges.

Breaking Senate rules? Nonsense, Bayne suggested, as those rules were broad, unclear and ambiguous. 

Improper travel expenses? All related to Senate business, Bayne argued, which includes, according to those unclear Senate rules, "partisan activities." (And if Duffy visited with family members at the same time, that was totally appropriate, he said.)

For every contention of wrongdoing, Bayne fought back, delving deeper into the allegation to try to prove Duffy was indeed engaged in some sort of parliamentary related business.

As for Donohue, Bayne did not dispute the arrangement with Duffy, instead offering that while it was "administratively irregular," it was not criminal and that none of the recipients were ever told to keep the arrangement quiet.

Bayne seems itching to go on the offensive and present his side of the case. And with virtually no chance proceedings will wrap up in August, he may still be defending his client well into November, the slated time for the fourth phase of the trial.