Senate wants a sober second look at Sen. Mike Duffy’s expenses

OTTAWA – The upper chamber appears poised to give now-independent Senator Mike Duffy’s expenses a sober second thought.

Following reports he may have billed taxpayers for Senate duties while campaigning for the Conservatives, Tory senators are expected to ask next week that a report looking into Duffy’s expenses be referred back to a committee “for further examination taking into account this new information,” according to a Conservative source.

It comes as fellow former Conservative Senator – and journalist – Pamela Wallin also said she will “recuse” herself from caucus while an audit into her expenses continues.

The move does not mean Duffy will be re-audited – but it could trigger the process, the source said.

But opposition MPs say it’s not enough to simply ask a Senate committee to revisit Duffy’s affairs, especially in light of revelations that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s chief of staff, Nigel Wright, cut Duffy a personal $90,000 check to cover the cost of improper expenses.

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“The Senate has no credibility on this,” said NDP MP Charlie Angus, the party’s ethics critic.

“They need to turn this over to an independent firm outside the Senate and they also need to make it public.”

Angus said Conservative senators need to explain what role they had, if any, “in tipping off Mike Duffy or making promises to the PMO that they were going to go easy on him in the report.”

“Either way it breaches all sets of ethical and perhaps legal standards,” he said.

Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson has said she is looking into the matter. The New Democrats have also written to Elections Canada asking them to determine whether Duffy – and possibly other senators –  broke election laws.

The NDP wants to know if Duffy charged the Conservative campaign for his travel during the writ period in 2011 or whether those costs were borne by taxpayers as part of his Senate expenses.

It was revealed this week that Wright wrote a personal cheque to cover more than $90,000 in Duffy’s improper expenses.

Duffy refused to cooperate with auditors after repaying the money. He failed to produce financial and credit-card statements, as well as a calendar of his activities.

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The request to go back to committee was prompted by reports that Duffy campaigned for the Conservatives during the April 2011 election while saying he was on Senate business – and claimed expenses from both.

Duffy resigned from the Conservative caucus Thursday as controversy raged over his expense claims.

In a statement, Duffy called the controversy surrounding his repayment “a significant distraction” to his caucus colleagues.

“Throughout this entire situation I have sought only to do the right thing,” he said. “I look forward to all relevant facts being made clear in due course, at which point I am hopeful I will be able to rejoin the Conservative caucus.”

At issue is whether Duffy and two other colleagues, former Liberal Senator Mac Harb and former Tory Senator Patrick Brazeau, actually had a primary residence outside of the national capital region when they submitted housing and living expenses.

Neither Harb nor Brazeau has repaid the money. Harb—now sitting as an independent—is contesting a Senate demand that he repay $51,482 in housing-related expenses. Brazeau is also fighting the Senate’s demand that he repay $48,744 in housing expenses, and is asking for a public meeting with the secretive committee that’s making the demand.

Liberal deputy leader Ralph Goodale said the Senate’s move to revisit Duffy’s expenses demonstrates “the utter chicanery and incompetence of the Conservatives.” He pointed out that when the reports were first introduced in the Senate earlier this month, the Conservative at the helm of the internal economy committee, David Tkachuk, wanted to pass them right away without examination. Tkachuk did not respond to interview requests this week.

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But the key issue, said Goodale, is what transpired between Wright and Duffy.

“We understand that there was a written agreement, that this is not just a verbal handshake,” said Goodale.

“If $90,000 changed hands, what was Duffy obliged to do in order to receive that money to pay off his debts, and what was the PMO obliged to do, beyond just turning over the cheque. This is a contract, this is a deal – a secret deal.”

The RCMP has said it is looking into the issue of Senate expense claims. But Goodale said any police investigation should extend to the $90,000 as well.

“An investigation by the police could not possibly limit itself to these unusual expense claims. It would surely have to go the issue of what was this deal with the PMO,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the RCMP would not comment on the extent of the invstigation.

The Prime Minister’s Office continues to stand behind Wright, Harper’s chief of staff, despite his secret gift to Duffy to help repay the expenses.

Harper’s spokesman, Andrew MacDougall, dodged questions Friday about whether the prime minister knew about Wright’s gift to Duffy.

“The overarching concern for the government was clear, that the expenses that were claimed were claimed improperly and had to be returned, and the government was firm in its desire to see those expenses repaid to the taxpayer of Canada,” said MacDougall.

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He said the office is cooperating with the ethics commissioner, who is reviewing the matter.

MacDougall reiterated the fact that Duffy is the only senator who has repaid his expenses.

“If you’re looking at the score card, there’s one for three senators that returned money to the taxpayer of Canada that was improperly claimed,” he said.

“Senator Duffy has some questions to answer but he’ll answer those as an independent senator now.”

–          With files from Canadian Press