Abruptly, in the form of a great yawning anti-climax, indeed almost as an afterthought, Crown prosecutor Mark Holmes concluded his cross-examination of Sen. Mike Duffy today, prompting the defence to rest and a halt to testimony 60 days after it began, and just about the only uncontroversial thing to be said of the evidence at this point is that Duffy will regard any mention of large gourds as a direct insult.
“The fairgrounds where the Saanich Fair takes place are huge,” Holmes told Duffy this afternoon, bringing his line of questioning back to an episode in the fall of 2009, when Duffy and his wife Heather travelled to B.C. to press the flesh at a Vancouver Island event—the Saanich Fair, actually—in support of Tory MP Gary Lunn.
“Have you been to the Saanich Fair?” Holmes asked matter-of-factly of the senator.
“No,” Duffy replied, “but I’ve heard lots about it.”
He really has: Duffy billed the Canadian taxpayer for this trip, which cost nearly $8,000, though he never showed up at the event. The Crown’s suggestion is that he undertook the travel in order to visit his two kids in B.C.; Duffy’s position is that Conservative apparatchiks didn’t want him going to that fair.
Facing Duffy in the witness box, Holmes continued polishing his fairground pastoral.
“There’s a pumpkin, a big giant pumpkin contest,” he told Duffy. “Did you know that?”
Duffy glared at Holmes.
“Are we into body shaming now?” he said.
The room turned to ice. Looking drawn, like a man who is no stranger to loathing, Duffy eyed the lead prosecutor, never averting his gaze.
Within the ensuing silence, you could hear the room process the repartee.
“Pardon?” said Holmes. “You’re kidding me, right?”
It was at this point that Justice Charles Vaillancourt intervened, and it did not take much. “Let’s stay on message,” he told Holmes, an edict that sounded very nearly like a referee on the ice advising a man with his gloves off to not take the bait.
“It’s a huge venue,” Holmes added of the Saanich Fair.
“I understand that,” replied Duffy.
So the day went, and none of it was good for Duffy.
Though the testimony never reached the intensity of yesterday, Duffy’s first under cross-examination, Holmes nevertheless hurt him badly.
The senator from P.E.I. faces 31 charges of breach of trust, bribery and fraud, and he and his lawyer Donald Bayne have defended against these vigorously, pointing out ambiguities in Senate rules and presenting a portrait of the PMO under former prime minister Stephen Harper as Machiavellian and out to get him.
Holmes today shrugged off the bafflegab, focusing instead on the nitty-gritty of administrative practices in Duffy’s offices, doing his best to show that Duffy was careless in the way he handled procedures around taxpayers’ money.
His questions highlighted one instance in which Duffy appears to have charged the Senate of Canada for a speech he was paid privately to deliver.
“I don’t know what your legal point is,” Duffy told Holmes at one point, “but I commissioned a speech, I got an essay, and the essay I put on my website.”
“This was a private business event on the 20th of October, Senator—”
“—for which you were paid $10,000?”
“That is correct,” Duffy replied.
“You cashed that cheque and deposited it in [Mike Duffy Media Services Inc.]?”
“I sure did, yep.”
Holmes latched onto the habit in Duffy’s office of pre-signing blank travel expense claim forms, which Duffy’s assistants filled in after his trips and submitted for reimbursement. Duffy’s camp says the practice was widespread and permitted senators to meet their 60-day expense-claim deadlines.
The Crown sees things otherwise.
“Senator,” Holmes began in his best tut-tut voice, “did you believe that your signature on the travel expense claim forms would influence Senate administration in the processing of the claims?”
“If it wasn’t there, they wouldn’t look at it,” said Duffy.
“You know that your verification or certification of the claim would influence them, right?”
“Are you expecting a senator to audit his own claims line by line?” Duffy asked Holmes. “That’s why they have specialists in finance. And that’s what your executive assistants do. Mr. Holmes, the signature was to trigger the Senate to audit that claim, to look at it in all of its aspects.”
Holmes was incredulous.
“What do you think the point of that is—what’s the signature at the bottom for?” he asked Duffy.
“The signature at the bottom is that the senator has seen this, but I trusted my assistant, and many other senators did as well,” Duffy said. “This was a widespread thing. The Speaker [of the Senate of Canada] even had a mechanical arm to sign his claims. So it’s not as if I was doing something out of the ordinary.”
For the record: Stephen Harper on the Duffy Trial
There was something very Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. about this reply, and it prompted Holmes to elaborate on the theme of his own incredulity.
“Is that even true?” asked Holmes.
“It’s in the auditor general [of Canada]’s report [on senators’ expenses, published in June], and I trust the auditor general,” Duffy retorted.
“Have you seen that, Sen. Duffy?”
“You mean have I seen the machine?”
“Yeah. The one used to complete the Speaker’s travel expense claim forms.”
“No, I haven’t seen it in use myself,” Duffy said, “but it’s in the [Senate Administrative Rules] that they will provide a mechanical arm for senators who wish one, and it was common knowledge in the Senate that the only way to keep ahead if you’re busy and travelling, the only way of keeping ahead of the 60-day deadline, was to use pre-signed forms.”
Holmes still found this hard to believe.
“The way that the claim was supposed to be completed is … the body was supposed to be filled out, and then you were supposed to sign after. Do you agree with that?”
“That’s the purist’s view,” said Duffy. “The practical view, the view that prevailed with the Senate, the common practice, was that senators used pre-signed forms. Because they knew that everything that was there was going to be audited by Senate finance and by their staff.”
Elsewhere, Holmes delved into the issue of Duffy’s personal fitness trainer, who Duffy hired as a consultant but who, it would seem, produced no work at all.
Instead, so the suggestion goes, Mike Croskery, the trainer in question, merely cheered Duffy on as he pedalled a stationary bicycle.
Duffy says he hired Croskery to work up an exercise program for seniors who do not have access to fitness equipment.
Croskery is an experienced coach and athlete, but he has no history working with the elderly. Holmes also pointed out that Senate work on this file has already been done, and that previous Senate reports do not identify a need for new training programs.
In fact, as one Senate report released in 2009 reads: “Model exercise programs and leader training programs have been developed at the Canadian Centre for Activity and Aging. The Committee has heard, however, that there is insufficient information sharing at the national level.”
This information, quoted to Duffy by Holmes this afternoon, left Duffy unmoved.
“And so back to the question about your awareness of any other reports issued by the Senate on the topic of aging,” Holmes said.
“I haven’t looked at any,” said Duffy. “I had my project. I had a consultant who was doing it and he was going to provide me with a niche product, an app—whatever—I didn’t need to know a lot more than that.”
“Your honour,” Holmes said, more or less in reply to this. “Those are my questions.”
With that Holmes conjured up, almost out of thin air, the end of these proceedings, at least as they pertain to the hearing of testimony.
Related reading: Sen. Mike Duffy, king of the hill
Bayne, sitting at his desk, started, as though he’d seen the spirit Ariel fly into the room. He blinked, shook his head, looked at his assistant in searching fashion.
Holmes hadn’t even queried Duffy on the issue of the $90,000 he took from Nigel Wright, Harper’s former chief of staff, the basis of the three bribery charges he faces. It seems clear the Crown believes much of its case in this regard, and others, rests on the documentary evidence—that nothing more could be gained from Duff.
The place dissolved then, the press reporters running off in one direction, the Crown prosecutors in another, Bayne in a third, and Duffy too, easing himself into his getaway car before the courthouse, lest he turn into that most preposterous thing: a pumpkin. No one could quite believe the day had ended this way.
The lawyers return tomorrow, to try and settle the question of when they will present final arguments. That will likely happen at the end of February.