OTTAWA – Mike Duffy says Stephen Harper’s office orchestrated a “monstrous conspiracy” aimed at snuffing out controversy over his Senate expenses because the prime minister was more interested in appeasing his Conservative base than he was in the truth.
Duffy, a former TV broadcaster, delivered a riveting and often biting speech to his Senate colleagues Tuesday, spinning a tale of “conspiracy” and allegations of “bribery, threats and extortion of a sitting legislator.”
He, along with former Tory colleagues Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau, was on hand to defend himself against a motion to suspend him from the Senate without pay for “gross negligence” in the management of their expenses.
Duffy said the alleged scheme to make a political problem go away included several members of Harper’s team, including his former chief of staff, two unnamed lawyers from the Prime Minister’s Office, counsel for the Conservative party, and senior Tory senators.
He described a February caucus meeting with Harper and his then chief of staff, Nigel Wright, during which the senator pleaded his innocence. Duffy said he had been told previously by the Conservative leader in the Senate, as well as Wright himself, that his expenses were above board.
“But the prime minister wasn’t interested in explanations or the truth,” Duffy said, recounting what Harper himself told him.
“‘It’s not about what you did,'” Duffy quoted Harper as saying. “‘It’s about the perception of what you did that’s been created in the media. The rules are inexplicable to our base’ …
“I was ordered by the prime minister to pay the money back, end of discussion.”
Duffy said when he later complained that he couldn’t afford to pay the money back, Wright offered to “write the cheque.” He does not, however, make clear whether Harper was privy to that part of the discussion.
Duffy said he spoke by telephone several times with Wright, repeatedly insisting that to “pay back money I didn’t owe would destroy my reputation.”
“The PMO piled on the pressure,” he continued. “Finally, the message from the PMO became, ‘Do what we want — or else.'”
The “else,” Duffy said, was that the Conservatives on the powerful steering committee of the Senate’s board of internal economy, David Tkachuk and Carolyn Stewart Olsen, would declare him unqualified to sit as a senator. He pointed them out as he spoke.
“‘However, if you do what we want, the prime minister will publicly confirm that you’re entitled to sit as a senator for P.E.I. and you won’t lose your seat,'” Duffy quoted Wright as saying.
“I said, ‘They don’t have the power to do that.’ He said, ‘Agree to what we want right now or else.'”
Duffy said he made one last effort, arguing he’d done nothing wrong and didn’t have the money to reimburse the Senate in any event.
“‘Don’t worry,’ Nigel said. ‘I’ll write the cheque. Let the lawyers handle the details, you just follow the plan and we’ll keep Carolyn Stewart Olsen and David Tkachuk at bay.'”
Tkachuk rose immediately after Duffy to vehemently deny either he or Stewart Olsen were part of a conspiracy to force Duffy to accept Wright’s deal.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” he told the chamber.
Indeed, he noted that his internal economy committee issued a statement in late February specifically noting that it didn’t have the mandate or jurisdiction to make any findings as to whether senators met the constitutional requirement that they be resident in the provinces which they were appointed to represent.
Duffy said he was also told not to bother co-operating further with the independent audit into his expenses.
“The e-mail chain shows it took hours of shuttling back and forth as the lawyers checked with their principals about the guarantees they would give to ensure I wasn’t censured for going along with the PMO scheme,” he said.
Duffy is protected from legal action over the allegations because his comments were made in the Senate chamber. He also did not provide documentation, though he claimed to have written material to back up his allegations.
Jason MacDonald, a spokesman for the prime minister, confirmed that Duffy approached Harper and raised his expenses.
“The prime minister was adamant that he should repay any inappropriate expenses,” MacDonald said.
“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.”
MacDonald didn’t respond to a specific question about the people in the Prime Minister’s Office that Duffy said were involved in an alleged agreement to have the expenses paid back.
Throughout the scandal, and as recently as this week during question period, Harper has insisted Wright bears sole responsibility for the repayment scheme.
The embattled senator’s remarkable narrative was his first extensive public comments since the scandal erupted earlier this year. His lawyer set the stage Monday morning, describing some of the same allegations as Duffy would later.
Duffy sat alongside Brazeau and Wallin in the back row of the Senate. They arrived separately, braving a mob of cameras and reporters to sit in the Senate chamber while the suspension motions were debated.
Brazeau also spoke, underlining repeatedly that he has never been afforded an opportunity to address the committee that found he had improperly claimed living expenses. He put forward a motion to hold a public hearing of the same committee into his expenses.
Brazeau emphasized that an independent audit firm hired by the Senate wrote in a report that he met all the criteria set out by the Senate for declaring a primary residence.
“You make decisions in the back rooms, in the back doors that nobody knows about, yet you’re ready to throw three of your own under the bus just to protect yourselves,” Brazeau said, looking across the aisle at his former colleagues.
“I’m telling you and all Canadians today, I am clean; I did not do anything wrong.”
The Senate adjourned before Wallin was able to speak. The motion to suspend her relates to her travel expenses.
A number of Conservative and Liberal senators say the move amounts to finding the trio, who are under RCMP investigation, guilty before they’ve been charged or convicted of any crime.
Liberal Senate leader James Cowan put forward his own motion, calling for the matters to be sent to a committee for further review.
Citing numerous court rulings in the past, Claude Carignan — government leader in the Senate — maintained the Senate has the exclusive power to govern its own internal affairs and to impose sanctions on those who break its rules.
A vote on the suspension motions was not expected until Wednesday at the earliest. Carignan earlier said that Conservative senators would be allowed to vote as they see fit.