OTTAWA – What began as a probe into Sen. Mike Duffy’s primary residence has morphed this week into something much more explosive.
The issue now is not just whether Duffy lived most of the time in Prince Edward Island or Ottawa, but that he was allegedly misrepresenting his whereabouts to line his own pockets with taxpayers’ money.
Senate officials took an independent audit completed earlier this month that included Duffy’s cellphone records and used it to cross-reference living expense claims made by Duffy. They were able to pinpoint 49 days when the senator claimed Ottawa living expenses when he was apparently not in the national capital region.
Duffy signed all the paperwork when he submitted the claims. A daily living expense for Ottawa ranged between $86.35 and $88.60.
Here are some of the details of what officials found:
— Duffy claimed and was paid for Ottawa living expenses during the federal election campaign on six days in April 2011 and one day in May 2011. Elections Canada documents show Duffy was not in Ottawa, but campaigning in Western Canada, the Toronto area and in Atlantic Canada with Conservative candidates.
— In August 2011, Duffy claimed 18 days of Ottawa living expenses when he appeared to be in Charlottetown. Senate administrators turned down that request.
— Duffy was in Florida for 17 days in January 2012, but claimed living expenses in Ottawa over 13 of those days. Duffy told auditors that was a “clerical” error and blamed a temporary worker. But Senate officials say it was his regular staffer who filled out the documents.
— On June 6, Sept. 1, 2, 9, 12, 13 and Oct. 3, 2011, and March 23, 2012, Duffy claimed Ottawa living expenses while he was apparently in P.E.I. He was paid for some of those days.
— On May 25, Sept. 21 and Oct. 6, 2011, Duffy claimed Ottawa living expenses while he was travelling elsewhere in the country. He was paid for some of those days.
“If people want to be dishonest or people want to cheat, they’ll find a way,” said Conservative Sen. David Tkachuk, chairman of the committee that’s been studying the expenses issue.
“It happens in all businesses, all institutions, all corporations, it has happened in the House of Commons.”
The question of whether Duffy was also misrepresenting his travel expenses remains unresolved, and the Senate does not appear to be delving into that file. Officials did not verify if Duffy was actually performing Senate business when he claimed he was doing so outside Ottawa.
Senate finance director Nicole Proulx noted one instance during the last federal election when Duffy claimed meals and incidentals under his travel expenses, saying he had flown from Moncton to Ottawa. On that day, April 21, he had campaigned in Nova Scotia, but returned a rental car at 2:12 p.m. in Charlottetown.
Duffy never met with auditors from the firm Deloitte, and failed to produce several pieces of documentation they requested. Deloitte emphasized in its report to the Senate in early May that while auditors were able to track Duffy’s movements with the help of cellphone records, they couldn’t be sure which days he was claiming per diems.
It’s not clear why Senate finance officials did not do the cross-referencing with their files immediately after the audit was completed.
Instead, the Conservative government declared the Duffy matter closed, emphasizing that the senator had paid back the $90,000 in living expenses he had claimed. Tory senators also redacted a report into Duffy’s expenses, making it gentler than two otherwise virtually identical reports into senators Mac Harb and Patrick Brazeau.
After it emerged that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s chief of staff Nigel Wright had helped Duffy pay the $90,000, and after The Canadian Press reported Duffy had been campaigning while claiming to be on Senate business, Duffy resigned from the Conservative caucus and the matter was sent back for further study.
The Senate’s internal economy committee voted late Tuesday to refer the matter of Duffy’s expenses to the RCMP.