OTTAWA – A high-profile Conservative senator who worked inside the Prime Minister’s Office says she’s upset about allegations that she sought to whitewash a report into the expenses claimed by colleague Mike Duffy.
And Carolyn Stewart Olsen is also drawing a distinction between her living arrangements and Duffy’s: Both Maritime-born Tories claimed expenses on their longtime homes in Ottawa after being named to the Senate, but Stewart Olsen said she immediately made New Brunswick her primary residence.
“You’re appointed to represent a region. My roots are very deep in the region. We had already planned on moving back,” Stewart Olsen said in an interview.
“I fought for New Brunswick; I fought for the Maritimes right through my time in PMO.”
Olsen has come under fire from the opposition parties for her role in the Senate committee probing Duffy’s living expenses. She is a member of a three-person sub-committee that directly handled an independent audit into his claims.
Sources have laid out how Stewart Olsen put forward a motion at the larger, closed-door internal economy committee to remove some of the most pointed language in its report on Duffy. The Liberals did not support that final report.
The decision was made to leave the language in reports on former Conservative Patrick Brazeau and former Liberal Mac Harb as a way to try and recoup moneys owed, Stewart Olsen said. Duffy had already repaid $90,000.
“When your integrity is impugned or questioned, you always feel terrible. I did,” she said.
“I take the prime minister at his word that he knew nothing of this. I have very little to do actually with the workings on the other side, because I’m busy. I have busy committees.”
Critics have also made note of Stewart Olsen’s ties to the Prime Minister’s Office, where she was a loyal assistant to Stephen Harper. Her links to the party date back to the days of the Reform party, when she also worked for Preston Manning.
When asked if she discussed Duffy’s expenses with anyone inside Harper’s office, however, Stewart Olsen said she only would have spoken to Conservative Senate leader Marjory LeBreton about the committee’s work.
“It was pretty obvious there were politics involved, but you’re making decisions on (a senator’s) life, so you have to be very careful,” she said in response to a question about political discussions with PMO.
“I can’t remember specific instances, but I’m sure if somebody said anything to me, I would say, yeah, it’s not really much fun to sit in judgment of the people you work with.”
Stewart Olsen was appointed to the Senate in August 2009, only a few weeks after she resigned a position as Harper’s director of strategic communications.
Born in Sackville, N.B., she had lived since the 1980s in the Ottawa area, working as a nurse and then as a political assistant with the Reform, Canadian Alliance and Conservative parties.
At the time of her appointment, Stewart Olsen was planning to live full-time in Cape Spear, N.B., where she and her husband have owned a home since 2005. She said they did not sell the Ottawa home she had lived in since 1999 until nearly two years after her appointment.
“We had to get it ready to put on the market, it needed some work. My husband’s business was winding down as well, so for the time that it took us to do all of that,” she said.
“He wasn’t fully retired yet when I did, so it took us a little while for us to get that all done.”
Elections Canada records show political donations that Stewart Olsen made to the Conservative party in 2009 and 2010 following her appointment to the Senate were listed from her home in Ottawa.
The upper chamber’s public financial records only go back to September 1, 2010. Between that time and the date Stewart Olsen sold her Ottawa home, she collected $11,507 in living expenses. Senators are eligible to claim $29 per day for private accommodation in Ottawa, and $88 per day for their living expenses.
Stewart Olsen appears frequently at government funding announcements and events across New Brunswick. After the Senate did an initial review of the living expenses of all senators, only those of Duffy, Brazeau and Harb were selected for an independent audit.
“That was what I signed on for, to represent the people of New Brunswick,” she said. “It was only proper that I live there.”