OTTAWA – Stephen Harper insists Mike Duffy should not be allowed to remain on the public payroll but he has no problem with the Conservative party using taxpayer-subsidized funds to pay the disgraced senator’s legal expenses.
The prime minister defended his party’s decision to foot Duffy’s $13,560 legal bill as he parried a fresh barrage of opposition questions Tuesday about the Senate expense scandal.
The barrage was fuelled by Duffy’s bombshell revelation on Monday that he got a cheque from party lawyer Arthur Hamilton — in addition to the well-known $90,000 given to him by Harper’s former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, which enabled him to reimburse the Senate for his allegedly improper expense claims.
“The party regularly reimburses members of its caucus for valid legal expenses, as do other parties,” Harper told the House of Commons under more withering criticism from NDP Leader Tom Mulcair.
Mulcair scoffed: “The prime minister, therefore, sees nothing wrong with using the money of the Conservative party to reimburse the legal expenses of someone he says has broken the law. That is the ethics of the prime minister. Duly noted.”
Donations to political parties are underwritten by the public purse through generous tax credits.
“I think donors are beginning to wonder how this party administers their donations,” said Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.
However routinely Harper suggested the Conservative party covers its caucus members’ legal fees, its largesse didn’t extend to other senators under fire for improper expense claims.
Sen. Patrick Brazeau’s office said no offer was made to pay his legal expenses. Terrence O’Sullivan, Sen. Pamela Wallin’s lawyer, said the same.
“Sen. Wallin has received no assistance with her legal fees — whether before or after she recused herself from the caucus — from the Conservative party or anyone associated with the Conservative party,” O’Sullivan said in an email.
All three senators are under investigation by the RCMP and are facing a government bid to suspend them, without pay or privileges, from the Senate.
The suspension motions were tied in procedural knots Tuesday, making it unlikely the Senate expense cloud will be lifted before the Conservatives gather Thursday evening for a two-day national convention in Calgary.
Claude Carignan, the government leader in the Senate, said it’s “impossible” to get votes on the motions out of the way before the convention because of Liberal stalling tactics.
“It’s very clear they try to filibuster the debate,” he said outside the chamber.
James Cowan, the Liberal leader in the Senate, countered that the Conservatives’ own inept handling of the matter is responsible for the fact that Friday afternoon is the earliest the suspension motions could be voted on — provided there are no more procedural snags.
That would be just in time for Harper’s keynote speech to the convention on Friday evening. However, even that seemed unlikely by the time the Senate finally ceased debate near midnight Tuesday.
Senate Speaker Noel Kinsella did not rule on a Liberal request that he rule out of order a government move to limit debate on the suspension motions. Barring other procedural manoeuvres, that means the vote on the proposed suspension can’t take place until at least Monday.
“I think they brought this in thinking that it would be a no-brainer and that it would go through and they’d be able to go to Calgary and this would be another success. Instead of that, in my respectful view, it’s blown up in their faces,” Cowan said.
The motions have run into stiff opposition among the Conservatives’ own caucus. At least two senators — Hugh Segal and Don Plett, a former president of the Tory party — have said the motions amount to sentencing the trio of senators before they’ve been charged, much less convicted, of any wrongdoing.
Down the hall at the Commons, Edmonton MP Peter Goldring said he’s spoken to 40 or 50 Tory MPs and about 80 per cent of them are concerned about the lack of due process for Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau.
Like Liberal senators, Goldring said he and other Tory MPs believe the issue should be “punted into a committee,” where the trio can be given a fair hearing.
Nevertheless, the Conservatives are expected to use their majority muscle to defeat Wednesday an amendment by Cowan to send the suspension motions to a committee, where Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau could be given a fairer hearing.
Carignan initially said the government is “not for the moment” considering any softening of the proposed suspensions — an idea he floated late last week — in a bid to appease some of the doubters within its own ranks. But late Tuesday, his deputy leader, Yonah Martin, moved to introduce amendments to the suspension motions.
She was denied the unanimous consent necessary to proceed by independent Sen. Elaine McCoy so the content of her amendments was not revealed. But Carignan later said they were aimed at allowing the three senators to retain their medical benefits, although they would still be suspended without pay.
Duffy, who has a heart condition, and Wallin, a cancer survivor, have expressed particular concern about being denied medical benefits.
Harper continued to argue Tuesday that all three collected expense claims to which they were not entitled and should, thus, be bounced from the public payroll. He was particularly adamant about Duffy, in the process further distancing himself from Wright, whose resignation he accepted “with regret” last May after learning that he’d secretly given Duffy the money to repay his expenses.
Harper said Monday that Wright was dismissed and he took an even tougher line on Tuesday.
“Once again, on our side, there is one person responsible for this deception and that person is Mr. Wright, by his own admission,” he said.
“For that reason, Mr. Wright no longer works for us. Mr. Duffy should not either.”
Conservative MP Dean Del Mastro, Harper’s former parliamentary secretary, has actually been charged with violating election financing laws and Liberal MP Scott Andrews questioned why the government has made no attempt to suspend him.
“After all, he is still on the public payroll,” Andrews observed.
While he repeatedly condemned the three senators for abusing the public purse, Harper shrugged off suggestions that party lawyer Hamilton did anything wrong in using taxpayer-subsidized funds to pay Duffy’s legal fees.
“This individual is not accused of anything,” he said, after being asked by Mulcair if he intends to fire Hamilton.
“New Democrats tell us that we should fire or expel people on the flimsiest of allegations without, in some cases, any proof of anything against anybody. Then when we determine that actions should be taken (against the three senators), the leader of the Opposition stands up and pretends these people are somehow victims of arbitrary actions.”