OTTAWA – The Senate expenses scandal deepened Thursday with the RCMP confirming it has now launched a formal investigation into the involvement of Nigel Wright, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s former chief of staff.
The Mounties had been reviewing the matter for several weeks to determine whether it warranted an investigation.
Spokesperson Cpl. Lucy Shorey confirmed Thursday that the force has concluded a full-fledged investigation is indeed merited “to determine whether a criminal act has taken place.”
“(The RCMP) must be meticulous and carefully consider and examine all information,” she said in an emailed statement.
“The RCMP would only lay charges when there is sufficient (evidence) to do so. As such, we will not be commenting any further at this time.”
Wright resigned as Harper’s chief of staff last month after admitting he gave $90,000 to Sen. Mike Duffy to enable him to reimburse the Senate for improperly claimed living expenses.
Harper has insisted Wright did not tell him about the “gift” until after news of it leaked out. But it seems likely the RCMP will probe whether Wright acted entirely on his own.
As of Thursday, Harper communications director Andrew MacDougall said: “The Prime Minister’s Office has not been approached by the RCMP.” He added: “We would provide any possible assistance if asked.”
Opposition MPs have for weeks been demanding why Wright would go to such lengths to protect Duffy. They’ve suggested his “gift” was intended to interfere with an internal audit of Duffy’s expenses and to buy his silence.
Indeed, after reimbursing the Senate in March, Duffy ceased co-operating with the auditors and reportedly claimed the Prime Minister’s Office had ordered him to be silent.
An initial report by a Conservative-dominated Senate committee on the results of the Duffy audit was softened to avoid directly criticizing the high-profile Tory fundraiser. The report was toughened after news of Wright’s $90,000 cheque to Duffy broke.
Liberal and New Democrat MPs speculated Thursday that the RCMP could be investigating whether the Wright-Duffy transaction involves bribery or fraud offences or a violation of the Parliament of Canada Act, which prohibits anyone from offering compensation to a senator on a matter before the upper house.
Confirmation of the RCMP investigation prompted federal ethics watchdog Mary Dawson to suspend her own investigation into the Wright-Duffy transaction.
Dawson said she was required by law to suspend her probe into Wright after learning earlier in the day that he is being investigated by another body “to determine whether he committed an offence under an act of Parliament.”
Lyse Ricard, the ethics officer for the Senate, suspended her examination of the matter last week, citing the RCMP review of the case.
Meanwhile, two other senators — Patrick Brazeau and Mac Harb — have been given 30 days to reimburse taxpayers for their disallowed living expenses.
Conservative Sen. David Tkachuk, chair of the Senate’s internal economy committee, confirmed Thursday that he sent a June 3 letter to Harb demanding that he repay $231,649.
Harb, a Liberal who now sits as an independent, was initially ordered to repay $51,500, covering the two-year period of the audit. But his tab increased almost five times after Senate officials were subsequently asked to review his expenses dating back eight years.
A May 28 letter was sent to Brazeau, a former Conservative who now sits as an independent, ordering repayment of $48,745.
If they don’t repay the money voluntarily, Tkachuk said there are options for forcing the issue. He wouldn’t elaborate but Marjory LeBreton, government leader in the upper house, has said their Senate salaries could be garnisheed.
“We will move forward on that; we’re not just going to leave it,” Conservative Sen. Carolyn Stewart Olsen said following a meeting of the internal economy committee.
However, both Brazeau and Harb insist they’ve done nothing wrong and have vowed to fight the matter in court. And that could suspend efforts to get the money back, Stewart Olsen acknowledged.
“We’re going to do our very best to recover taxpayers’ money … and it will be a shame if the courts hold up the recovery but, you know, it’s due process.”
It’s unclear whether Brazeau and Harb could ask the Senate to cover their legal costs.
The repayments were demanded after Deloitte audits into the living expenses claimed by Duffy, Harb and Brazeau.
The internal economy committee was told Thursday that Duffy reimbursed the Senate with a personal cheque drawn on a bank in Prince Edward Island, the province he was appointed to represent.
Deloitte auditors are continuing an examination of the travel expenses claimed by a fourth senator — Pamela Wallin. Three of them appeared before the internal economy committee Thursday to explain why it’s taking so long.
Deloitte had initially told the Senate’s internal economy committee that there’d be no problem completing the audit before the Senate breaks for the summer at the end of June.
But lead auditor Gary Timm said Thursday that’s no longer possible because they’ve been asked to extend their examination of Wallin’s expenses back another three months, to the date of her appointment in January 2009.
As well, Timm said auditors are awaiting information from an unidentified third party, which won’t be available until the end of this month.
Timm told the committee the audit should be complete by mid-July but translation will take another seven to 10 days.
Eyebrows were first raised after an examination of Wallin’s travel expenses from September 2010 to Nov. 30, 2012, showed she had claimed only $29,423 in what’s deemed regular travel to and from her home province of Saskatchewan, while racking up another $321,000 in other travel elsewhere in Canada and abroad.
Tkachuk said Wallin has been “totally co-operative right from the beginning to now” and has voluntarily repaid $38,000.
“She’s said, ‘You know what, I made a mistake, here’s a cheque,'” he said after the meeting with the auditors.
Stewart Olsen said committee members are “not thrilled that it’s taking so long” to complete the Wallin audit. But they’ve figured out a way to ensure they’ll be able to release it in the middle of the summer, even though the Senate will not be sitting.