From Puppies to Plays: Canadian Senator Expense Trial Begins

Canadian Senator Mike Duffy billed taxpayers for family trips, funerals, a shopping trip for a puppy and other events unrelated to parliamentary business, while operating a “clearing house” fund to distribute government money, prosecutors allege.

The case against Duffy, a former broadcaster appointed to the Senate by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, was laid out Tuesday as his trial began in Ottawa. Duffy stood quietly as 31 criminal charges were read out at an Ottawa courthouse before entering his plea.

“I am not guilty, your honor,” Duffy, 68, said. His lawyer denied many of the Crown’s allegations before the court.

The anticipated trial comes ahead of Canada’s October federal election, and is expected to open a window into the office of Harper, whose former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, gave Duffy C$90,000 ($72,000) to repay disputed expense claims. It marks the first time scandal has implicated Harper’s inner circle, raising questions of what the prime minister knew and when he knew it.

Wright is now a managing director at private equity firm Onex Corp. and lives in London. The prosecutor said outside the courtroom Tuesday that Wright is expected to testify in person at the trial.

Harper has disavowed knowledge of the circumstances that led to criminal charges, though his political opponents have accused him of changing his story. In his own opening statement, Duffy’s lawyer took aim at Harper.

Political Stakes

Defense Lawyer Donald Bayne told the court Harper was informed by Wright about the plan, that his office intervened in Senate reports on Duffy’s case and that he personally evaluated Duffy’s performance as a high-profile senator and fundraiser. Bayne also tied Harper personally to one of the disputed expense claims, saying a make-up artist paid by Duffy’s office did Harper’s make-up for the same event.

Any development that ties Harper to the case raises the political stakes in an election year. Speaking in Vancouver, Harper said Tuesday he won’t be called to testify because investigators have affirmed he had no knowledge of Wright’s payment.

“We have offered the Crown every possible assistance in their case against Mr. Duffy,” said Harper, who saw support for his Conservative Party decline to the lowest since he came to power as the scandal unfolded in 2013.

The scandal first emerged in late 2012 with reports that senators, including Duffy, were claiming expenses on secondary homes in Ottawa when they largely lived there. Duffy says his claims were all legitimate.

Wright’s Check

The controversy grew after it was disclosed that Wright wrote a personal check to Duffy to help him reimburse the Senate for some of the expenses. Duffy and two other Harper-appointed senators were subsequently suspended without pay by the chamber. Duffy was charged in July 2014.

The beginning of the trial Tuesday offered the first chance for the prosecution, led by prosecutor Mark Holmes, to lay out details of the case.

While Duffy became a senator in 2009 as a representative of Prince Edward Island, he had long lived in the Ottawa area following a career as a television journalist covering political affairs. That is a key pillar to the case, as he had been filing travel-related expenses for trips to Ottawa even though he lived in the city, prosecutors allege.

“He portrayed himself as somebody who was a traveler to Ottawa” to claim expenses, Holmes said in court, even though he largely lived in the city. “Effectively, what he was doing was commuting” within Ottawa.

Duffy maintained his driver’s license, health benefits and paid his taxes at various times in Ontario, applying for Prince Edward Island credentials only when questions began being raised about his residency, Holmes said.

Expense Claims

Holmes laid out some expense claims Duffy submitted to taxpayers. In one case, he contracted a former friend to run what Holmes said “was effectively a clearing house for Senator Duffy to hand over money as he saw fit.” Under the arrangement, Duffy paid C$64,000 in Senate money to his friend, Gerald Donohue, between 2009 and 2012. Donohue then used those funds to make payments on Duffy’s behalf, totaling at least C$32,000, to people including a volunteer at his Senate office, to a makeup artist and, over three years, about C$10,000 to a personal trainer, Holmes said.

Duffy’s lawyer argued those contracting expenses were legitimate and all within the wide-ranging authority senators have over office budgets. “All were within the budget envelope. All represent a tiny fraction of the overall office budget. No kickbacks of money were ever sought by Senator Duffy,” Bayne told the court.

Duffy’s Trips

Duffy billed taxpayers C$8,000 for a trip that included attending a theatrical performance his daughter was involved in, Holmes said. Other trips were for funerals, he said. One trip paid for by taxpayers was to go buy a puppy in Peterborough, Ontario, while another included visiting a daughter about to give birth, he said.

Duffy’s lawyer said the senator never planned to buy a puppy and that other trips had legitimate Senate purposes.

In one case, Duffy had expensed a trip to Ottawa for a medical appointment, only to see it rejected by the Senate, the prosecutor said. He subsequently resubmitted the expense as a community event, Holmes said. In another incident, he billed the Senate C$3,142 for a trip to Ottawa, where he was paid C$11,000 to give a speech to an industry group.

Duffy Defense

Bayne argued broadly that Duffy followed Senate rules while carrying out his duties, including those specifically at the request of Harper.

“The Crown hopes to have you, like an ostrich, put your head in the sand and ignore relevant evidence,” Bayne told the judge, later saying Senate rules allow family visit on trips that also have a Senate purpose. “Why wouldn’t Senator Duffy, if he’s out on Senate business, meet with his daughter out in Vancouver?” Bayne asked the judge.

Duffy needs to be held to Senate rules, however unclear they are, and not the prosecution’s “colloquial idea of the layman’s common sense,” said Bayne, who later held up a book of Senate rules as a demonstration to the court.

“It’s not a book of common sense, but it is the book that governs the Senate,” he said.

The 31 charges include multiple counts of fraud and breach of trust, relating to the Wright payment, to contracts he awarded and to other travel expenses filed to the Senate.

The trial is being held before Justice Charles H. Vaillancourt, without a jury. It is expected to last until June.

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