OTTAWA – The judge in the Mike Duffy fraud case says he’ll “definitely” make the matter a priority if it runs overtime and will rearrange his schedule to get it done.
In a rare public scrum for a sitting judge, Toronto-based Ontario Court Justice Charles Vaillancourt made the comments after he told the courtroom Wednesday the trial likely won’t end by June 19.
“They can always rearrange my schedule in Toronto, and then I’ll come up here and deal with the case,” Vaillancourt said.
When asked if it was a priority, he answered: “Definitely.”
However, the judge couldn’t be as absolute as Duffy’s lawyer, Donald Bayne, who said he expects the case will wrap before the October federal election.
“I’m ready to carry on,” Bayne told reporters.
When asked if it will be done before an election campaign or the scheduled October 15 voting day, Bayne said, “I certainly hope so…yes I expect it should.”
Vaillancourt said the timing will depend on whether a courtroom is available, and other administrative matters.
It will also depend on the availability of the Crown.
Prosecuting team Mark Holmes and Jason Neubauer are also taking on retired Liberal senator Mac Harb in his fraud and breach of trust trial, which starts in August. In addition, they each have a murder case to prosecute in the fall.
So far, Duffy’s trial has heard from only two witnesses in seven days.
“I don’t know how long it’s going to take because I don’t control the number of witnesses or how long it takes with each witness,” Vaillancourt said.
“We’ll just have to wait and see.”
Won’t complete ‘the task’
Earlier Wednesday, Vaillancourt hinted that the trial, only in its second week, is already behind schedule.
“I don’t see us completing our task in the assigned number of days,” Vaillancourt told the court.
Dozens of witness have been called to testify, although not all will necessarily take the stand.
If delayed, it was not immediately clear when Duffy’s trial would pick up again, and if it would be before or after the scheduled Oct. 15 federal election.
At the very least, it reduces the chances of a verdict before then.
Duffy’s lawyer has already accused senior Tories of orchestrating a conspiracy against his client, who was appointed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in December 2008.
A delay means the unresolved issue of Duffy’s expenses and an alleged cover-up in the prime minister’s office could follow Harper on his summer barbecue circuit or the campaign trail, when he’d rather be discussing other matters such as the economy or fighting terrorism.
By the same token, it also means Duffy will likely maintain his silence as his matter is before the courts, and Harper can also invoke that same reasoning not to comment.
The trial was expected to last 41 days between April 7 to May 12, and again on June 1 to June 19.
Duffy’s lawyer, Donald Bayne, also suggested Wednesday he is unavailable on May 11 and 12.
The suspended former Conservative senator is facing 31 fraud and breach of trust charges relating to his living expenses, Senate contracts and a bribery charge for accepting $90,000 from former chief of staff Nigel Wright.
Both Duffy and Wright, along with several former and current staff members of Stephen Harper’s prime minister’s office, are expected to testify towards the end of the trial.
So far, court has only heard from two witnesses.
Mark Audcent, the Senate’s former law clerk, spent four days on the stand, most of it under Bayne’s cross-examination.
And after two days, Bayne wrapped up his cross-examination of Senate human resources officer Sonia Makhlouf, who was called to testify Monday about $65,000 worth of Senate contracts Duffy awarded to the companies of an old friend, Gerald Donohue.
The Crown alleges Duffy funnelled the money through Donohue to pay for services that were not part of his Senate duties, such as a personal trainer, makeup artist and family photos.
Bayne continued his line of questioning about the breadth of a senator’s discretion in hiring external researchers, and the fact that Senate officials did not check if the work was done after the contract was signed.
“Some of what Senator Duffy is on criminal trial for are administrative decisions, and you were making them too, right?”
Bayne suggested that Donohue subcontracted the Senate contracts, which was not against the rules at the time, and while the work done may not have been “administratively regular,” it was all valid as laid out in Senate guidelines.
“While it may not be administratively regular to treat this as research and consulting…it’s nevertheless valid senatorial work, right?” he asked the witness.
He said Duffy was allowed, under there rules as they existed, to pay a volunteer in his office $500 after months of office work, and that a $300 makeup job was done for a youth G8 meeting in Ottawa – at the prime minister’s request.
He said photographic services were part of a “pretty constant demand” for senators, who regularly pose for pictures.
And as for the personal trainer, Bayne described him as a consultant on health and fitness for the aging demographic of Canada.
Mahkouf testified that the duties described by Duffy in his request for contracts to Senate administration, such as speechwriting, webpage design, and general advice on media and communications, were part of Senate duties.
Bayne also pointed out that Senate administration would allot the funds for external research even if the work had begun or was completed before a contract was signed.
“The person has already started working and I have no choice but to pay this person,” Makhlouf testified.