November 17, 2015 7:00 am
Updated: March 10, 2016 10:48 am

‘It’s all sort of imploding.’ Part 2: How the RCMP investigates the Senate

Nineteen senators flagged with problematic expenses by the auditor general have opted to challenge the findings before a special arbitrator. Six of those senators are among a group of nine being referred to the RCMP for a criminal review. The Senate chamber on Parliament Hill is seen May 28, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

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Laura Stone spent four days with the RCMP’s sensitive and international investigations unit this summer as the force was starting its investigation into the auditor general’s report on Senate expenses. This project was produced as part of the Canadian Journalism Foundation’s Greg Clark award. The award allows a young journalist to spend a week gaining insight and meeting key players on a specific issue or beat. Due to the sensitive nature of the project, Global News signed a non-disclosure agreement with the RCMP in order to protect the integrity of an active investigation. Global News also sent the RCMP a copy of this report in advance. One quote was removed, but nothing else was changed.

PART 2: THE INVESTIGATION

OTTAWA – The RCMP’s national division occupies a generic office tower in Ottawa’s Vanier neighbourhood, a run-down area east of downtown.

Guests sign in with security guards, who sit behind bullet-proof glass, and can only enter the building through a turnstile with the swipe of a key card.

This unexceptional space is where the most sensitive cases in Canada involving corruption, fraud and bribery are probed.

WATCH: “We conduct these investigations in the most professional way,” RCMP Assistant Commissioner Gilles Michaud says about investigations tied to politicians

On a June day when Auditor General Michael Ferguson’s report on Senate expenses is released, Supt. Denis Desnoyers meets me in the foyer around 2 p.m.

It’s eerily quiet, and no one appears to be in any hurry to start an investigation.

The discrepancy between this atmosphere and the outside world is jarring: the media may be frantic, but the RCMP is downright relaxed. They know it’s a long road ahead.

And their work doesn’t end with the audit; it only begins.

Dressed in an army green dress shirt and water-patterned tie, Desnoyers has brown hair and a round, young face that makes him look younger than a supervising officer with 30 years’ experience, although he’s only been at this particular job for a few months.

The Sensitive and International Investigations unit was re-branded from “A” Division in 2013. There are supposed to be 113 investigators, says Desnoyers, although he hints at budget cuts that have kept only three of four teams operational.

“With fiscal restraints being where they are, we’re working on less and less of the lower-tiered stuff,” Desnoyers says.

“We have finite resources and we need to work on what we think is the most important.”

Investigators here handle the most politically-sensitive cases at home and abroad, and a separate team provides protective services for foreign and domestic dignitaries such as the prime minister.

As a legacy from “A” Division, investigators name all of their cases beginning with that letter.

Mike Duffy’s case, for instance, was called Project Amble – although investigators insist it had nothing to do with slow-moving senators.

But now they’re running out of names, so this latest investigation into Senate expenses is characterized by colours.

“When you’re in my shoes, and you have to review, I don’t know how many cases we have – 20, 30 cases – and they all have a project name, you start losing the head and tail of them,” Desnoyers says.

The unit’s mandate is to investigate matters at the highest executive levels – and that includes government.

“Breach of trust is a big piece of what we do for government officials, especially you’re talking senators, that’s one of the key areas we look at. That and fraud,” Desnoyers says.

Unlike say, murders, these sensitive investigations are initiated by a formal complaint – usually accompanied by a letter and source material, outlining the reasons for suspicion.

But with the auditor general’s report, the RCMP got nothing but a one-page letter from the speaker of the Senate, Leo Housakos, asking them to investigate nine Liberal and Conservative senators, two of whom are still sitting in Parliament.

That’s the difference between the Senate and another federal department – it’s a reluctant complaint, devoid of detailed information, from the very body it’s investigating.

And in Housakos’ case, from a person who was himself named in the report.

Desnoyers admits it’s frustrating.

“We don’t have the crystal ball,” he says.

“They need to give us a clear letter of complaint as opposed to just some vaguely-worded, ‘By the way we think something happened here.’”

WATCH: RCMP Assistant Commissioner on challenges faced when investigating politicians

It’s also important the RCMP returns a letter acknowledging a complaint, in order to officially confirm who has referred the matter to police.

That’s part of the official nature of such investigations. There can be no inference these decisions are political or personal.

Desnoyers insists cops don’t take this work personally.

“We’re just doing our job,” he says. “Not mechanically, but we’re putting the pieces together.”

Not knowing who has the new Senate documents, the next step for Desnoyers is a visit to the auditor general. There are all sorts of questions as the process begins.

Will Ferguson cooperate? Will he agree to be interviewed? Will he provide original documents, or will the RCMP have to get a production order for that?

READ MORE: End self-policing of expense accounts, explosive Senate audit urges

Then there are other considerations about which senators to investigate, or not: if, on three occasions, a senator stops over in Toronto on the way to his home province, does he get investigated because former Conservative Senator Pamela Wallin did the same thing, even though she did it dozens of times?

What happens to a senator who is 78 at the start of this process? Is prosecuting an alleged $1,000 fraud in the public interest?

We stop by Insp. Stephane St. Jacques office, in another area of the building close to the investigators’ cubicles. He’s reading his own copy of the report.

“I have to read this and make up my mind what I’m going to do,” he says.

St. Jacques, an expressive Frenchman who uses the slang “fait que” in between every second word, is expecting a call from Sgt. Greg Horton, who is still in court for the Duffy trial.

“He’s an amazing investigator,” St. Jacques says of Horton.

But both he and Desnoyers say they want to keep him on course. There is a reference to him burning out.

“We’re big on mental health and trying to be supportive of each other,” Desnoyers says.

“The days of cowboys and we’re all tough guys, we’re trying to move beyond that and be more professional at what we do.”

Once a case is referred to the RCMP, it sets into motion a multi-layered process. Interviews, document seizures and analysis, including forensics, happen concurrently.

In a completely separate area of the building, the public works department’s forensic accounting management group – known as FAMG – works on contract with the RCMP to help identify documents and patterns that may be useful in a criminal investigation.

For example, an accountant may look at expense claims, but requires access to a bank account to reconcile spending – and that’s where the production order comes in.

Officers might also use technical investigations services, which painstakingly parse through seized phones or computers in order to pull necessary documents.

PART 1: IT BEGINS

PART 3: DUFFY’S GHOST

It’s the lead investigator’s job to create an operational plan for each case, submitted to the higher-ups for approval and resource allocation.

Assistant Commissioner Gilles Michaud is in charge of the division and reports to Commissioner Bob Paulson, who keeps tabs on high-profile files.

Officers have to constantly organize their paperwork – because if the case goes to trial, the defence lawyer will have access to it.

And one little screw-up means the case goes out the window.

“We need to be concerned about disclosure, because everything needs to be disclosed and eventually it gets disclosed to defence,” says Desnoyers.

When investigators feel they have a solid case, they issue a report to the Crown lawyers, who recommend whether to lay charges or not. It can take months, if not years.

In Ontario, the RCMP doesn’t have to consult before laying charges. But on a big case such as the Senate files, investigators say it’s a good idea.

“You want to be on the same page as the Crown,” Desnoyers says.

“It makes no use to lay a charge and have the Crown withdraw immediately thereafter – to get a sense that they support and that they agree. But usually that’s not much of a problem. It’s a bit of a formality.”

In figuring out which cases to prioritize – and which they have the money for – the RCMP has to decide what meets the threshold for public interest, including probably of prosecution and conviction, deterrence and punishment.

What’s most interesting about the Senate files is where the red chamber itself is to blame.

In these sensitive cases, investigators also consider “environmental factors” of the institution in question – such as inadequate audits, lack of records, and poor enforcement.

I ask Desnoyers if this applies to Duffy, and other senators, whose expense claims were approved for years by Senate administration before the RCMP became involved.

Is the person at fault, or is the place, for allowing this behaviour to continue?

The answer, of course, is not simple.

“A whole book could be written about that,” Desnoyers says.

“Now somebody’s shined a light on what’s going on, and what was acceptable (in) that culture, all this lack of training, lack of moral standards, records – now it’s all sort of imploding.”

He suggests that even if something was acceptable in a culture, or went unnoticed, or was brushed under the rug – every individual has to answer for his or her own actions.

And that’s in part how the RCMP determines criminality: Ask yourself, would you do it?

“We’re always thinking, well we know what Treasury Board rules are for ourselves, and we know…budget cuts, and we’ve got to watch every penny,” says Desnoyers.

“If it’s unacceptable for us, why would it be acceptable for them?”

Part 3: Duffy’s Ghost, runs tomorrow on globalnews.ca

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