OTTAWA – The Liberals in the Senate are trying to trigger special parliamentary hearings in the hopes of forcing the prime minister’s former top aide and others to testify about a secret $90,000 payment to a former Tory senator.
Liberal Senate leader James Cowan argued on the Senate floor Tuesday that Stephen Harper’s office violated the sacrosanct privileges of parliamentarians, and may well be in contempt of Parliament.
Harper’s former chief of staff Nigel Wright gave Sen. Mike Duffy $90,000 to pay off improper housing expenses earlier this year. Wright resigned Sunday, and Duffy quit the Conservative caucus on Thursday, after the details began to emerge.
After that payment from Wright, Duffy stopped co-operating with an audit into his expenses, and sources say a Senate report into his claims was stripped of some of its most critical language. Liberals on the Senate committee on internal economy, which sits in secrecy, voted against the report in protest.
“If monies were paid which would influence the decision of a Senate committee, then that is contempt of Parliament, and that infringes my privileges as a senator, and it infringes the privileges of senators and the Senate and interferes in a spectacular way…with the independence of the Senate,” Cowan told reporters.
Conservative Senate leader Marjory LeBreton had declared the matter closed two weeks ago when the reports on housing expenses were tabled.
During Senate question period on Tuesday, LeBreton insisted that she and her colleagues were unaware of Wright’s payment until it was revealed on the news.
“I was dealing with what I had at that point in time. That’s all I could do,” LeBreton said of her comments on May 9.
Cowan pressed LeBreton to explain why the report on Duffy’s claims was different from that of two other senators, former Liberal Mac Harb and former Conservative Patrick Brazeau, referring to it as “whitewashed.”
LeBreton suggested it was because Duffy had already paid his improper expenses, and the reports might have been designed to persuade Brazeau and Harb to do the same.
Cowan is arguing that the executive branch interfered in the proceedings of the Senate committee tasked with studying Duffy’s expense claims.
If Senate Speaker Noel Kinsella finds there appears to be a breach of parliamentary privilege, he could send the issue to a special committee for further study. Such a Senate committee would enjoy the privilege of summoning any witness it wants on the matter, including Wright or others from Harper’s office.
Harper’s office insisted Tuesday there was no agreement between Wright and Duffy, and that as a result no documentation of such a deal exists. But no one has yet provided a full explanation of what transpired between the two men.
The ethics commissioner is reviewing the matter, and LeBreton suggested the Senate ethics officer is too. The Conflict of Interest Code for Senators prohibits gifts to senators of more than $500.
Meanwhile, Harb raised a question of privilege in the Senate on Tuesday evening, suggesting his reputation was impugned when the Senate committee issued its report saying he owed $51,482. Harb noted that independent auditors declared rules around primary residences were not clear, and they did not determine he had broken them.
“Tell me what percentage of the time you want me to live in my primary residence?” Harb responded angrily to questions put by Liberal Senator George Furey.
“This is a democracy. If I’m not billing the Senate for my time off it’s not anyone’s business where I am.”