Benjamin Perrin “was immediately taken aback” when Stephen Harper decided in February 2013 that owning at least $4,000 of land in a given province was enough for a senator to qualify as a resident there, the Ottawa court hearing Mike Duffy’s bribery, fraud and breach of trust trial heard Thursday.
“I would be able to consider myself a resident of Nunavut, having never visited there, simply by buying $4,000 of real estate,” he testified.
At the time, Perrin was the only in-house legal counsel at the Prime Minister’s Office, responsible for advising the prime minister and providing him with legal advice.
He didn’t have a direct line to Harper, but rather would undertake legal assignments from one of four senior staff members at the office – chief of staff Nigel Wright, his deputy chief of staff (there were two while Perrin was employed at the office), principal secretary Ray Novak or the prime minister’s policy director.
In mid-February, as Duffy’s questionable housing expenses were making headlines, the Prime Minister’s Office first sought out to determine whether the Harper appointee was constitutionally qualified to sit in the Senate.
The question had been raised on account of him living in the Ottawa-area home he’d owned since the 1970s despite representing P.E.I.—where he owned a cottage – in the Senate.
Wright contacted Perrin.
Perrin wrote a memo detailing his legal opinion on evaluating an individual’s constitutional right to sit as a senator, including Duffy and Pamela Wallin. His memo recommended specific indicators for evaluating whether a senator met the requirements for sitting on behalf of a particular province.
Once his memo was passed up and back down the chain of command, he saw the prime minister’s decision.
It shocked Perrin, he told the court.
“I was immediately taken aback” by the prime minister’s opinion that simply owning at least $4,000 of land in a province – a requirement set out in the Constitution – was enough to qualify someone as a resident in that province, Perrin testified.
He said he told his seniors: “The view taken by the prime minister was not consistent with basic legal interpretation principals, and that I didn’t agree with it.”
But the prime minister’s word stands, the witness explained, and becomes the PMO’s position – despite the fact it neglected to look at an individual’s taxes, driver’s licence, voting history or other typical determinants of residency, Perrin said.
Based on Harper’s direction, all Conservative senators were constitutionally qualified to sit in the Senate.
Throughout all this, Perrin said he was told that the only impediment to having Duffy repay his questionable expenses – then thought to total about $32,000 – was the question of constitutional qualification.
“It was my understanding that once this was resolved, Duffy would be paying back the expenses,” he said, adding he was always of an understanding that repayment would come from Duffy’s own pocket.
The plan at the time, however, was to have the Conservative Party fund repay the dubious housing and living expenses the senator had accumulated.
Eventually, it was revealed the bill totalled more than $90,000 and the party balked at paying. Days later, Wright decided to transfer his personal funds to Duffy’s counsel for repayment.
Perrin’s testimony in the trial follows Wright’s, which lasted six days.
The lawyer, who is now a law professor at the University of British Columbia, told the RCMP in an interview that Wright eventually told him of his intention to use his funds for Duffy’s expenses, and that Harper’s current chief of staff, Ray Novak, was also in the know.
The embattled P.E.I. senator is on trial for a total of 31 charges of breach of trust and fraud. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
The Crown has made the case that it was Duffy who was an “equal partner” or “instigator” of a scheme that would allow him to tell everyone he had repaid the money when, in truth, he’d managed to get someone else to.
Duffy’s defence says it was the other way around — that he was coerced into admitting he had improperly collected expenses, even though he firmly believed he had done nothing wrong.