Video: Mike Duffy breaks out the big guns in the Senate as he faces suspension. Mike Le Couteur and Tom Clark report.
OTTAWA — Defending his job and reputation Tuesday, Sen. Mike Duffy claimed Prime Minister Stephen Harper ordered him to repay inappropriately claimed housing allowances during a three-way meeting.
Reading with fervour from a prepared statement, Duffy recounted to his Senate colleagues a meeting in February with Harper and his then-chief of staff, Nigel Wright. It was just one part of the tale of “monstrous conspiracy” orchestrated by the Prime Minister’s Office he said occurred.
“I was ordered by the prime minister, ‘pay the money back, end of discussion,’” Duffy said. “Nigel Wright was present throughout, just the three of us.”
The order of payment came, the senator said, because the prime minister was concerned about how the Conservative base was responding to the Senate spending scandal.
“The prime minister wasn’t interested in explanations or the truth,” Duffy claimed. “It’s not about what you did, it’s about the perception of what you did that’s been created in the media.”
It was at that February meeting the three men discussed the scandal and any possible resolutions. The resolution, they decided, would be simply to repay the $90,000 the Senate said Duffy owed, he said.
When the former journalist lamented he couldn’t afford that sum, Wright told him he would cut the cheque, according to Duffy’s version of events.
The senator expressed further hesitance to making the payment, for the public could perceive it as an admission of guilt—a verdict he steadfastly denies to this day.
Watch: Mulcair, Trudeau blast Harper over Senator Duffy’s comments
A spokesman for the prime minister on Tuesday evening said Duffy approached Harper and raised the issue of his expenses following a caucus meeting.
“The prime minister was adamant that (Duffy) should repay any inappropriate expenses. That is the only time the prime minister discussed Mr. Duffy’s expenses with him, and he was clear that inappropriate expenses should be repaid,” Jason MacDonald wrote in an email.
He did not respond to whether Wright was present during that encounter.
Senators Patrick Brazeau, Pamela Wallin and Duffy were all in the Senate on Tuesday, their futures in the chamber hanging in doubt, as their colleagues began debating motions to suspend them without pay.
The motions were put forward by Conservative Senator Claude Carignan, the government leader in the Senate, who began the debate by reading a the background, context and basic arguments underlying the three cases of illegitimate housing and travel expense claims.
While he read from committee reports, audits and sections of laws, both Wallin and Duffy, sitting side by side, switched their attention between the items on their desks—papers, a tablet and phone—and the Conservative leader in the Senate.
Brazeau, meanwhile, appeared focused on Carignan, who gave a run-down of the Senate’s power to hand down disciplinary sanctions.
Brazeau stood to address his colleagues in the chamber after Duffy, calling for the Senate internal economy committee to hold an open and public hearing into his spending audits, which would allow him to speak freely and have legal counsel.
When he made a similar move Tuesday afternoon, prior to today’s debate, two senators applauded Brazeau’s notice of motion: Wallin and Duffy.
During his impassioned presentation to the Senate, Brazeau said he met all four residency requirements. The Prime Minister’s Office is merely using him as a scapegoat, he said.
“It’s a complete joke,” Brazeau said, calling the process an abuse of power.
“This is a complete farce … Stephen Harper, you’ve lost my vote,” he said.
The Senate adjourned without making a decision or hearing from Wallin Tuesday, but is expected to pick up the issue again Wednesday.
Government leader in the Senate Carignan had the floor before any other senators.
In launching into his speech, he said the first question the senators gathered in the chamber must ask themselves is whether they have the power to impose the disciplinary measures he is seeking—suspension without pay, benefits or Senate resources.
For more than an hour, he laid out a case for why they do.
“I would never suggest or insinuate that Sens. Duffy, Wallin or Brazeau committed a criminal offence,” he said, but argued that the Parliament of Canada Act gives the Senate the power to impose whatever sanctions it sees fit when rules are violated.
As his motions read, Carignan is accusing all three senators of “gross negligence.”
Independent Senator Elaine McCoy asked Carignan whether he was proposing to set a dangerous precedent with these motions; could suspending Wallin, Duffy and Brazeau for gross negligence—a specific legal term—without proving such be risky, she asked.
Watch: Senators Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau walk past media
Liberal Senator David Smith, meanwhile, asked what happened to the Charter right to a presumption of innocence until proven guilty.
To that, Carignan replied that the Charter refers to criminal matters, something different than what the Senate is dealing with today. The issue at hand, he said, is an internal matter and as such gives the Senate the power to discipline as it sees fit.
When it was his turn to speak, James Cowan, the Liberal leader in the Senate, highlighted the gravity of the situation, noting that the decisions each senator takes on these motions will have an effect not only on the three senators in question, but also on the integrity of the institution as a whole.
Watch: Liberal Senate leader James Cowan wants a special committee created to get to bottom of scandal involving Senators Duffy, Brazeau and Wallin
Cowan suggested the three motions go to a Senate committee in order to hear expert opinion on whether suspension without pay is an appropriate and valid sanction.
Earlier Tuesday, it was uncertain whether any or all of the senators at the heart of this would show up at the Senate to defend themselves, but all did.
Duffy, according to a statement he issued last week, was under doctor’s orders to stay away from work, awaiting the all-clear from his medical team regarding a heart condition.
Despite this, he stepped out of his car Tuesday, greeted by a throng of reporters. “The Senate’s sitting, it’s my job and despite my doctor’s orders, I’m here,” he said before delivering an animated speech.
Both sides of the Senate are divided concerning Carignan’s move to introduce three motions to suspend the trio of former Conservative senators for the remainder of the parliamentary session.
While the Opposition leader in the Senate, Liberal Senator James Cowan, said he intends to allow his caucus colleagues to vote with their conscience, the Conservatives are reportedly looking at whipping the vote, a practice in which members are forced to vote a certain way.
Brazeau, who is suffering from an undisclosed medical condition, has consistently claimed innocence in the expense scandal. Following an independent audit, the Senate decided Brazeau owed more than $48,000 in housing allowances it says he shouldn’t have collected.
The embattled senator was already kicked out of the Conservative caucus and forced leave from the red chamber after he was charged with assault and sexual assault following an incident at his Gatineau, Que. home in February.
Wallin’s lawyer, Terrence O’Sullivan, is seeking a public hearing for his client in which the Senate would present evidence and witnesses supporting their allegation of “gross negligence.” Without that, he said he may seek legal action.
With files from the Canadian Press and Global News’ Laura Stone.