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
PART 2: THE INVESTIGATION
PART 3: MIKE DUFFY’S GHOST
OTTAWA – The top four minds on the RCMP Senate investigation are gathered in Supt. Denis Desnoyers’ corner office for an early morning meeting.
The blinds are open, but summer clouds are covering the sun, casting an ominous pall over the room.
Insp. Stephane St. Jacques and Sgt. Greg Horton are there, along with Sgt. Jean-Francois Arbour, another investigator in charge of 30 new Senate files referred to their unit as a result of June’s auditor general’s report.
They’re talking about the man they can’t escape, no matter how hard they try.
“We have to look at them,” Horton says, referencing nine of the most serious Senate cases, “because some in there have slight similarities to Duffy, and we’re charging Duffy with a crime.”
Sen. Mike Duffy’s case has set a precedent, one the force cannot ignore.
If the RCMP believes the former Conservative senator’s actions – such as charging a housing allowance for his Ottawa residence – were criminal, then they have to maintain the same standards for the others.
Horton, the lead investigator on Duffy’s file, seems at once obsessed and tortured by the case.
One day when he is out at the Duffy trial, a note on his chair reads: “Court until June 11. FML.”
His office is otherwise covered with posters of Bob Dylan and Slash, and a mug that reads “I hate Monday…through Friday.”
The Duffy trial is the force’s first legal test of the Senate expense scandal, and much is riding on it for the institution, the senators and the public.
READ MORE: Mike Duffy trial to break until November
As much as the RCMP tries to downplay it, they know the Duffy verdict will influence other cases.
It’s especially true if Justice Charles Vaillancourt makes any determination about residency, including whether Duffy was allowed to charge taxpayers for his home in Ottawa, despite having lived there for years.
“I can’t see that not having an impact on the other cases,” Desnoyers says.
But he knows it will be a long road.
No matter what happens with Duffy, either side could appeal – dragging out the legal process for several more years.
The investigators can’t be fazed by it; it’s not their job.
With this new batch of 30 Senate referrals, they’re in charge of building the strongest cases in the public interest, with the highest probability of conviction.
LISTEN: Mike Duffy fires back at PMO
“I’ve seen some very good solid cases not get through the courts, and I’ve seen other cases get through. And you wonder, what caused that?” Desnoyers says.
“They say justice is blind, and sometimes she really is.”
But he’s adamant that when a charge is laid, it’s because the RCMP has gone through a rigorous, lengthy process to get to that point.
“I know when we build a case, and we lay the charge, we goodness to truly believe, yeah, a criminal offence occurred. I feel absolutely 100 per cent about that. I see it, it’s black and white,” he says.
I ask about the one-way bribery charge involving Duffy and former prime minister Stephen Harper’s one-time chief of staff, Nigel Wright.
Many were perplexed by the move to only charge Duffy with bribery for accepting $90,000 from Wright to pay off his expenses. But Wright wasn’t charged for giving Duffy the money.
“I know that the critics would say, well, if Duffy got paid for receiving a bribe, what about the guy who paid the bribe?” says Desnoyers.
“I would have to say it’s all in the details and it’s all in the…circumstances. And putting that case completely aside, in other cases, we do try to target up.”
“To target up” literally means going after the higher target – the person who’s alleged to have committed more serious crimes.
In Duffy’s case, it could also be a matter of cooperation.
When allegations about improper spending were first surfacing, Duffy gave his detailed schedule to Wright in order to show how much he’d been travelling for the Conservative party.
Wright, in turn, handed it over the RCMP – a key piece of evidence used by the Crown to allege Duffy was billing taxpayers for personal trips.
“In a perfect world, yeah, you may be able to scoop everybody,” Desnoyers says.
“But in the world that we live in, we need to build the strongest case that we can against the higher targets.”
Desnoyers is also extra cautious around the politically-sensitive files.
He doesn’t want a repeat of 2006, when former RCMP commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli confirmed a probe into the Liberal government’s income trust policy during the election campaign – a move that ended up costing the commissioner his job.
(Finance department official Serge Nadeau later pleaded guilty to using insider knowledge of tax changes to profit on the stock market.)
“We don’t want to play politics. We just want to enforce the law,” Desnoyers says.
At the same time, he vehemently denies there’s ever been any political influence on his office.
“I couldn’t do my job, sleep at night, if that were the case, if this office or investigators were influenced like that,” Desnoyers says.
Back in his office, the four investigators sit with their legs crossed, and lay out the big picture for what’s to come.
It’s a remarkably casual meeting, given the context – one of the highest political institutions under police review.
But here they are, making decisions about investigating senators, as if discussing what they’ll have for lunch.
The investigators decide to look into the nine senators referred to them, and if something jumps out at them, they’ll continue digging.
But if an individual case looks like an uphill battle from the start, it won’t make the cut.
“Some of them, like for sure, there’s something wrong there,” St. Jacques says.
With the 21 other cases, they’ll review the ones that look suspicious, and which ones are in the public interest to pursue. They’ll look for red flags, such as lack of cooperation, obfuscation and missing documents.
They’ll make sure to justify their decisions on paper as to why or why not they decide to pursue a case, so nobody – politician or otherwise – can question their motives.
As for the scope, investigators will likely look further back into the history of seven senators who are now retired – just how far back, no one yet knows.
In the face of public scrutiny, limited resources and ongoing trials, the investigators don’t aim for quantity.
They want quality: convictions.
“Whether we get 30 charges, or 130 charges, nothing changes, except for the amount of work. And the higher we get to the 130, the amount of evidence starts getting weaker and weaker, and more complex,” says Desnoyers.
“You won’t get an argument out of me,” Horton replies.
“Let’s hang our hat on what’s solid, black and white, simple to explain to Joe Blow on the street, that they get it, and then the Crown gets it and then the judge gets it,” Desnoyers says.
“Let’s keep it lean and mean and to the throat.”