OTTAWA – Senate officials confirmed they have found a troubling pattern of Sen. Mike Duffy claiming Ottawa living expenses while travelling elsewhere, including several days in 2011 when he was campaigning across the country for the Conservatives.
Senators meeting at a committee late Tuesday voted to send the matter of Duffy’s expenses to the RCMP, after hearing the new information. Duffy’s claims had originally been scrutinized to determine where his principal residence was – the latest information introduce a whole new wrinkle into the scandal.
Duffy did not attend the meeting. Last week, he said he was looking forward to setting the record straight at the committee.
Senate finance officials detailed how Duffy made claims for living expenses for being on Senate business in Ottawa, while he was elsewhere in the country.
The Canadian Press first reported two weeks ago that Duffy had said he was on Senate business while campaigning with Conservative candidates.
But it wasn’t until the latest report was tabled Tuesday night that an accounting was given on the precise days Duffy was claiming expenses.
During the 2011 election, Duffy asked for Ottawa-based living expenses on seven separate days when he was out of town.
In total, in 2011 and 2012, Duffy made claims on 49 days he was not in Ottawa. Senate finance officials rejected 24 of those claims at the time they were made, but didn’t raise alarm bells.
“It represents a pattern that raises concerns,” the report released Tuesday said.
An independent audit by the firm Deloitte had raised the possibility that Duffy had been claiming expenses while not in Ottawa, but underlined that the senator had not provided them with adequate documentation and never met with auditors.
The firm also pointed out one unusual situation where Duffy had claimed to be in Ottawa, but was actually vacationing in Florida. Duffy called it a “clerical error.”
The Conservatives in the Senate declared the matter closed shortly after receiving the audit, pointing to the fact that Duffy had repaid the $90,000 in living expenses.
The matter blew open again, however, when it was revealed that the $90,000 bill was actually paid with the help of the prime minister’s then chief of staff Nigel Wright.
That payment took up most of question period in the Commons earlier Tuesday.
Eschewing the histrionics and partisan broadsides that normally dominate question period, opposition leaders posed short, sharp, relentless queries about when the Prime Minister Stephen Harper learned about Wright’s payment.
The onslaught elicited no new information as Harper stuck resolutely to his story that Wright acted on his own, without informing the prime minister or anyone else in his office.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair showed off his skill as a lawyer, peppering Harper with 14 pointed questions:
“When did the prime minister first speak with Nigel Wright about Mike Duffy’s expenses?” he asked.
“How many times did he speak with Nigel Wright in the week preceding his resignation?”
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau followed suit.
“Will the prime minister commit to releasing all records, emails, documents and correspondence relating to any arrangement between Mr. Wright and Mr. Duffy?” Trudeau asked.
“Will the prime minister commit to having everyone involved in this affair, including himself, testify about their involvement in a public forum, under oath?”
Harper committed to nothing and offered little new information.
He insisted he first learned on May 15 that Wright had cut a personal cheque to pay for Duffy’s invalid expense claims.
“Until the morning of May 15, when Mr. Wright informed me that he had written a personal cheque to Mr. Duffy so that he could repay his expenses, it had been my understanding that Mr. Duffy had paid from his own personal resources,” Harper told the Commons.
He added that there was no legal agreement between Wright and Duffy, “to my knowledge.”
Opposition leaders weren’t buying it.
Mulcair pointed out that Duffy ceased co-operating with external auditors who were examining his expenses as soon as the $90,000 was paid and that he sent an email suggesting he “stayed silent on the orders of the Prime Minister’s Office.”
“Who told Mike Duffy to remain silent?” Mulcair demanded.
“These are not matters I am privy to,” replied Harper. “This is an email from Mike Duffy, who is no longer a member of our caucus and certainly never conveyed that information to me.”
Mulcair further noted that the Conservative majority on the Senate’s internal economy committee “whitewashed” its report on the audit of Duffy’s expenses, deleting references that the rules on housing allowances are clear and unambiguous.
He pointed out that Sen. Carolyn Stewart Olsen, Harper’s former press secretary, moved the motion to delete the damning paragraph from the Duffy report – although the same paragraph featured prominently in the committee’s reports on two other senators’ expenses claims.
Harper insisted he had no conversation with Stewart Olsen about Duffy’s expenses and maintained his office had nothing to do with the Senate committee’s report.
“It is the author of its own report. That report mirrors the recommendations of an independent audit,” the prime minister maintained.
Harper’s version of events was dismissed as implausible.
“This is what the prime minister would have Canadians believe,” said Trudeau. “The chief of staff walks into the Prime Minister’s Office Wednesday morning, looks him in the eye and said that, unbeknownst to him, he had secretly paid a sitting legislator $90,000 to obstruct an audit.
“If that were true, the prime minister should have fired Nigel Wright on the spot. Instead, he spent five days defending him and calling him honourable (before accepting Wright’s resignation).”
Trudeau also noted that the first news report about Wright’s involvement surfaced on the evening of May 14 and included a statement from the PMO assuring Canadians that no public funds had been used to repay Duffy’s claims.
“Is the prime minister not aware, so completely, about what is going on in his own office that he did not know the night before when the news broke?”
The government leader in the Senate, Marjory LeBreton, said late Tuesday that the chamber has now adopted 11 new rules governing Senate travel and expenses.
She said they include “clear and consistent terminology” surrounding residency expense claims and a requirement that senators provide a specific purpose for travel when claiming expenses.
“Canadians understand that our Senate, as it stands today, must either change, or like the old Upper Houses of our provinces, vanish,” said LeBreton in a statement.
LeBreton said senators will also be required to maintain mileage logs when claiming mileage and provide taxi receipts when filing claims for taxi rides.