WATCH: RCMP Assistant Commissioner Gilles Michaud: “We conduct these investigations in the most professional way.”
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 1: IT BEGINS
OTTAWA – It’s just past 10:30 a.m. in the city’s east end, and 18 people are sitting around a grey boardroom clutching notebooks and cell phones, leaning back in their chairs and cracking jokes.
The long wooden table is littered with Starbucks coffees and reusable water bottles, the walls are framed by a white board with a couple of scrawls, and the carpets characterized by haphazard electrical cords.
On the back wall is a generic poster that reads “Above and Beyond,” depicting a set of planes flying through the sky, leaving a trail of white vapor in their wake.
It’s all very normal – unremarkable, even – except for the guy in the police uniform and bulletproof vest.
That’s the first sign this isn’t your average office meeting: it’s the start of the most politically-sensitive investigation in Canada.
And the work of the 14 men and four women in this nondescript carpeted room in the RCMP’s Sensitive and International Investigations unit – dressed in their golf shirts, plaids and the odd tie – could ultimately prove the undoing of Canada’s chamber of sober second thought, once and for all.
The RCMP’s Senate probe has begun.
It’s just like any other investigation – except when it isn’t.
Although the story of Auditor General Michael Ferguson’s audit of the upper chamber has dominated headlines for months, the national police force is coming in cold.
As with any case, investigators will take their cues from the evidence, if and when they find it.
They’ll need to convince the average person on the street that a crime has been committed – if, indeed, they believe it has.
Yet they’re also aware these investigations have far-reaching political consequences.
So the force must walk a fine line between this awareness and a profound belief that all allegations be treated equally – a difficult task when the country is watching.
But first: logistics.
“Does everybody have a copy of the audit report?”
Sgt. Greg Horton sits at the head of the table, beside his boss, Insp. Stephane St. Jacques. Horton wears a light blue and white striped shirt, his hair combed stylishly to the side, his demeanour brusque.
“Go through the whole thing,” he tells the room.
If his name sounds familiar, it’s because Horton was the lead investigator on the most high-profile of the so-called Senate expense scandals: the Mike Duffy file.
His team’s investigation resulted in 31 charges against the former Conservative senator, whose fraud and breach of trust trial continues in an Ottawa courtroom this week.
Brazeau’s trial is set for March, while Harb’s will likely get going next fall.
PART 2: THE INVESTIGATION
PART 3: DUFFY’S GHOST
Two years on, there are signs former Conservative senator Pamela Wallin’s investigation is nearing charges, but her case is complicated by conflicting day calendars and hundreds of expense claims.
This time around, Horton will lead a team of 12 investigators on nine new Senate referrals from Ferguson’s office.
“Greg is going to be the (lead) – for obvious reasons,” St. Jacques tells the room.
“This job is going to be way bigger than what he took in the past.”
The auditor general spent two years reviewing expenses from the upper chamber, and recommended in June that nine senators be referred to the RCMP.
Another 21 senators were found to have questionable expense claims.
Due to the sensitive nature of the case, the RCMP had already charted out four teams of investigators, each assigned to look into the activities of two to three senators, before they even saw the report.
Back in the boardroom, one middle-aged female investigator finds out she’ll be going to Newfoundland as part of her research.
“I get to travel outside of Canada!” she says, to laughter.
But the investigators are also touchy about being told what to do, saying they follow what the evidence says – not what the public expects.
And they don’t get a head’s up: the force didn’t even get an advanced copy of the auditor general’s report.
They printed it off the website like everyone else.
Sitting in his office on the day the audit is released, Supt. Denis Desnoyers stares at the thick stack of paper, ready to plunge in.
Desnoyers, the head of the unit, says he tried to obtain an advance copy of the report, along with source documents.
“Quite often, what we read in the media is what we know about the case,” he says.
“Because we have no inside track, or nobody’s talking. And that is a big issue with our cases.”
He also takes issue with which cases the Senate chose to “refer” to police.
“We’re scratching our head going, with all due respect, who are you to decide if this is criminal, and has maybe criminal links to it, and…the 21 there aren’t.”
So, two days after the audit was posted, RCMP investigators were checking it out for the first time in detail.
But this initial boardroom meeting is only the first step in a very long process; it doesn’t necessarily mean a full-fledged investigation is underway.
While others in the force may disagree, Desnoyers prefers to call this early process a “probe” or a “review,” carefully tiptoeing around the word “investigation” before anything is proven.
It’s especially significant in political cases, and even more so during an election campaign.
“That word has certain connotations to it, that it’s criminal, that they must have done something wrong if we’re investigating,” Desnoyers says.
“We have to keep an open mind about it, I guess is what I’m saying.”
The first step is determining whether there is anything to investigate in the first place.
While the auditor general may suspect nine cases of criminality, the standard for prosecution is much higher.
Not only must a criminal act occur, but the person must have a criminal mind – the elusive mens rea – and that is difficult to prove.
“That becomes challenging. How do you prove that the person knew and they intended to do what they’re doing?” Desnoyers says.
The RCMP might ultimately disagree with the auditors on the nine new Senate cases, or decide that some or all of the 21 other cases of questionable spending are worthy of a second look.
In the meantime, they plan on striking a separate committee to review the 21 cases, to determine if there are enough so-called red flags to warrant a review.
St. Jacques tells the officers they may be assigned more, or fewer, senators in the future.
“How does Duffy play?” asks the officer in the bulletproof vest.
“Nothing to do with it,” Horton barks back. “It doesn’t,” St. Jacques says, in tandem.
The truth is, no one knows what will happen with Duffy – and how his case, the first to be tested in court, will impact the others.
WATCH: RCMP Assistant Commissioner on challenges faced when investigating politicians
The RCMP believes the Prince Edward Island senator defrauded taxpayers by claiming a housing allowance for an Ottawa home he’d lived in for years, and where he spent a majority of his time.
The police also allege Duffy billed taxpayers for personal trips to visit his family or attend funerals, and that he used Senate contract money for illegitimate purposes.
But Duffy’s lawyer Donald Bayne has spent weeks piercing a hole in the Mounties’ case.
Bayne argues Duffy’s housing expense claims were within vague and poorly enforced rules, that his travel on the Senate’s dime was reasonable, and that his handing out of contracts through a friend’s company was a mere administrative error.
Desnoyers has seen it all before.
“You have these very well-paid, very smart, very capable defence attorneys,” he says.
“They will get into the smallest of arguments and tear apart witnesses and create doubt…but to us, clearly what Mr. Duffy has done – and I appreciate Mr. Bayne is trying to defend – clearly what Mr. Duffy has done is an offence.”
That story is now playing out in the courts. In the end, it might not make any difference to these new cases; it might make all the difference, depending on what the judge rules.
Every case is different, and investigators have to put it out of their minds.
Right now, what matters is knowing where to start. Without a paper trail, investigators have nothing.
“We don’t know where the docs are,” Horton tells the room of investigators.
The RCMP doesn’t know if the Senate has the original expense claims, or if they are at the auditor general’s office; and no one is returning their calls.
So in these early days, they are doing what they can.
An investigator has already been assigned to start writing out an ITO – an “Information to Obtain” order – a crucial document that asks a judge for permission to seize documents or electronic information.
Unlike with the Duffy investigation, Horton doesn’t have time to do it himself, so another officer will.
The ITO will ask the court for expense claims from either the Senate or the auditor general, and lays out what the RCMP suspects so far in order to justify to a judge why they need more information.
Investigators will also start conducting interviews, while they wait for documents or electronic files.
This initial meeting goes over such investigative basics as how to catalogue events in a notebook, how to reduce paperwork – “If it’s not related to the investigation, it should not be in a report,” Horton says – and how to correctly format last names (note: no capitals).
It’s all about organization. Everything investigators write down from this point on might one day be released in court.
Horton tells his investigators to control the amount of “ums” and “uhs” they utter in interviews. “It’s embarrassing,” he says.
He also tells them to keep the interviews short and sweet. “We don’t need to bond with these people. Get in and get out.”
Horton, who’s been through this before, doesn’t want everything investigators pick up – such as a business card – to be characterized as an exhibit, one that might potentially make it to a trial.
“It doesn’t become an exhibit unless there’s a blood stain on it,” he says.
Someone asks about the time frame of the investigation.
While Ferguson’s audit spanned only two years, the “primary residence” definition in Senate rules which allows senators to claim expenses if they live more than 100 kilometres from Parliament Hill, was laid out in Senate policy in 1998.
That means investigators could be reviewing expense claims from almost 20 years ago.
“We have, I think, all the Senate policy that’s relevant now,” Horton says dryly. “It’s a lot of policy. I encourage you all to read it. It’s great reading.”
An investigator sitting in the corner asks Horton if there is anything new in this batch of files.
“More of the same,” Horton replies.
But whether the Duffy case will affect these new Senate referrals remain to be seen.
“We’re still going to do our job until we’re told to stop,” St. Jacques says.
“That’s it. See you in 10 days.”
Part 2: The Investigation, runs tomorrow on globalnews.ca