A fair process now important even if Senate got it wrong for Duffy et al: Cowan

The Senate chamber on Parliament Hill is seen May 28, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld.
The Senate chamber on Parliament Hill is seen May 28, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

WATCH: Senator Cowan says he won’t leave Senate leadership role while challenging audit

OTTAWA — Stepping aside from his leadership role in the Senate while fighting the results of the auditor general’s audit would be an admission of guilt, and that’s why Senator James Cowan is staying put, he said Sunday.

“I’ve done nothing wrong,” the Opposition Leader in the Senate said in an interview on The West Block with Tom Clark. “I have a dispute with the auditor general, a respectful dispute, a disagreement, and I’m going to resolve that through an independent process which has been established, which is available to anybody.”

That process involves a system system by which any senator disputing the auditor’s findings can turn to former Supreme Court of Canada justice Ian Binnie, who is acting as a special arbitrator and referee any disputes.

READ MORE: Conservative senator resigns in wake of AG report

“We have a completely independent process in place, unlike we’ve had in the past, to deal with this,” Cowan said. “I won’t get any better break or any worse break as a result of this process.”

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The curious point here though, is that Cowan, along with Senate Speaker Leo Housakos and Government Leader in the Senate Claude Carignan, had a hand in crafting that process.

All three men, who together represent the seat of power in the upper chamber, are among a list of 21 current and former senators who have questionable, and potentially illegitimate, expense claims.

The upper chamber invited Auditor General Michael Ferguson almost two years ago to audit the expenses of more than 100 current and former senators.

The call came as the Senate was awash in controversy after Senators Mac Harb, Patrick Brazeau, Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin had their living and housing allowances and travel expenses subject to an independent audit.

READ MORE: Senate audit among costliest ever, says Auditor General Michael Ferguson

Following those independent assessments, the Senate ordered the trio to repay tens of thousands of dollars in what were deemed wrongly collected allowances.

The process for those senators was starkly different than the process Cowan, Housakos and Carignan set up for themselves and their colleagues.

The RCMP has since charged Harb, Brazeau and Duffy with fraud and breach of trust; Duffy is also facing one charge of bribery and is currently on trial.

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The RCMP are also investigating Wallin, who was suspended from the Senate without pay along with Duffy and Brazeau, though no charges have been laid.

READ MORE: Critical audit outlines systemic issues in senators’ expense claim

Prior to voting to suspend the trio of senators, Cowan was on the record speaking out against the process; at the time, he said it looked like the government was making up the process as they went along, and that the Senate had no business acting like a judicial chamber.

“Just because we didn’t get it right then doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get it right now,” Cowan said. “At the end of the day people will all accept what justice Ian Binnie decides in each case.”

The fact Cowan, Housakos and Carignan are not stepping aside as the leadership is astounding to some observers.

“I can only conclude they haven’t recused themselves or stepped aside from the process because the Senate is a pit of corruption, ineptitude and woolly-headed thinking about what Canadians are expecting from the chamber of sober second thought,” said Dan Leger, a columnist and author of a Mike Duffy biography.

WATCH: Author and journalist Dan Leger and Ottawa Citizen parliamentary bureau chief Mark Kennedy discuss the political fallout of the Senate audit.

“Any sensible process would dictate that you treat everybody the same or give them equal chance. Now they’ve got an arbitrator to come in in the middle of this whole thing.”

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Proceeding in this manner, Leger said, will do little to restore credibility to the upper chamber — if that’s even possible at this point.

“This is a crisis of monumental proportions,” said Ottawa Citizen parliamentary bureau chief Mark Kennedy.

Ferguson’s report recommends at least nine senators’ files be referred to the RCMP, according to sources. The report is expected to become public this week.

As soon as each of the Senate leadership became aware they were on the long list of questionable, though not egregious, expenses, they should have recused themselves from the process, Kennedy said.

“When the Senate leadership knows it has a public relations nightmare on its hands, it needs to inspire public confidence and the last thing it needs is members of the media or even other senators saying you’re putting yourself into a conflict of interest into a preferential position,” he said.

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