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The Duffy affair: Where precisely is the beef?

After all that has been said and done, is there really a scandal in the Duffy affair? Here are three points of potential trouble


 

Duffy Trial 20150420

The National Post’s Colby Cosh wonders where the scandal is in the matter of Mike Duffy and Nigel Wright. This is apparently more of a plea for clarity than it is a critique.

I’d agree with Stephen Maher’s suggestion that there is a useful exercise here. It’s been more than two years now since CTV first reported that Wright and Duffy had come to some arrangement. Great amounts of time, in question period and now during the campaign, have been spent questioning the Prime Minister about the affair. Duffy is now facing three charges related to that arrangement (in addition to another 28 charges related to other issues). Hundreds of pages of emails between officials in the Prime Minister’s Office have been made public. And the Prime Minister’s former chief of staff has spent several days testifying under oath in open court.

Setting aside however one might regard the way in which the government has handled the affair since that arrangement was first revealed, allow me to posit three particular points of interest.

The $90,000

The business of Nigel Wright’s cheque is interesting to parse. It was essentially a gift to cover questionable public expenses, but it also had the consequence of helping end a public controversy for a government that Wright was assisting—Wright’s motivation has been a point of debate between himself and Mike Duffy’s lawyer. And the cheque was kept secret. What if Duffy had been assisted instead by a friend or relative? Would that have been viewed, politically, as a scandal?

Wright lost his job as a result of giving Duffy that money and Stephen Harper has referred to Wright’s actions as a “deception.” And three of the 31 charges that Duffy is currently facing relate specifically to his acceptance of that cheque. It might just seem like the sort of thing that shouldn’t be occurring on a regular basis. But Wright hasn’t been charged and no verdict has been rendered on those charges against Duffy.

Ultimately, I’ll point simply to two issues with the cheque.

First, that it was kept secret. The public and the government’s opponents might not have reacted favourably to the initial disclosure of the cheque—and it might’ve set an interesting precedent for other Conservative senators to cite when calling up the PMO for assistance—but at least no one could claim that there had been a deception.

More fundamental is the the very notion of a member of the legislature being directly indebted to a high-ranking advisor in the executive branch. Perhaps it is quaint to insist on such official niceties, but at the time Mike Duffy accepted that financial gift, a large part of his official responsibility as a member of the Senate was to scrutinize and vote on legislation that came before the Senate, and most of the legislation that comes before the Senate is authored and sponsored by the government. As such, I’d suggest that a senator should generally not be indebted to the Prime Minister’s chief of staff.

At this point someone will guffaw and point out that the Prime Minister already has the ability to bestow financially compensated positions—ministerial portfolios, parliamentary secretary assignments—upon members of the legislature. But those benefits are publicly bestowed and explicitly associate a member of the legislature with the executive—once an MP becomes a minister or parliamentary secretary, his or her job description and responsibility changes. Mike Duffy was indisputably a Conservative senator, but on a strict reading of the situation he was not a member of the government. But now he was going to be indebted to one of the most powerful individuals in that government.

The audit

Before Ray Novak became yesterday’s headline, there had been some haggling in court between Wright and Duffy’s lawyer over the third-party audit of Mike Duffy’s expenses and Senator Irving Gerstein’s discussion with a contact at Deloitte. Deloitte has said its audit was not compromised, but in November 2013, the Prime Minister’s spokesman of the day said that had the Prime Minister known about plans to have Gerstein contact someone at Deloitte, the Prime Minister would have intervened. “One, he was not aware that Mr. Gerstein was reaching out to Deloitte or had been asked to reach out to Deloitte, and again had he known about that he would have put a stop to it,” Jason McDonald said at the time.

The Senate

Within the correspondence disclosed so far are indications of the PMO’s desire and effort to manage and coordinate the business of the Senate. There is Wright’s email to Duffy in which Wright reports that he had “asked for all unilateral action” from Senator Marjory LeBreton’s office “cease before being cleared” with him. There is a memo to the Prime Minister about managing a favourable finding of the Senate on residency. There is the memo in which PMO officials explain their efforts to manage the previously unmanaged upper chamber. And there is the PMO’s involvement in the drafting of a Senate committee’s report on Duffy’s expense claims, involvement that seems to have been opposed by Christopher Montgomery, a member of LeBreton’s office.

“I just met with [Senator Carolyn Stewart Olsen],” one official in the PMO wrote in an email on May 8. “I gave her our changes. She agreed with them 100%. I reinforced with her that the implementing of all of the changes to the report was the fulfillment of her commitment to Nigel and our building. She indicated she understood this.”

There are various existential questions here for the Senate.

When the matter of the committee report first emerged two years ago, the Prime Minister deferred to the Senate’s responsibility. “In this case, Senator Tkachuk has been clear that the Senate obviously got advice from all kinds of sources,” he said, “but in the end that committee made its own decisions and its own recommendations.”

Harper’s parliamentary secretary attempted to put matters in perspective. “With respect to reports, I think all members of Parliament, on both sides of the House, are routinely given advice by different people. I note even in committee, when we are reviewing reports, political staff sit behind all of us but, ultimately, it is up to the members of Parliament, it is up to those who are elevated to the Senate, to make the decisions and to stand by the decisions they make. That happens every single day in this place, and I suspect it should happen in the Senate, as well.”

The Prime Minister’s director of communications explained things similarly. “In terms of the relationship between PMO and senators, it is not uncommon for—senators are caucus members and they, like any other caucus member, an MP, will work with the Prime Minister’s Office on, whether it’s communications, whether it’s parliamentary issues.”

There’s much to commend the notion that senators—and MPs—are independent adults who should be held personally responsible for their own actions; that regardless of who is trying to persuade them, they are still responsible for however they are persuaded. But, as I wrote last week, that doesn’t quite remove from question the actions of the PMO or nullify questions about how the business of Parliament is conducted and what edits were made.

According to an account contained in the RCMP filing of November 2013, Chris Montgomery told officers that he “advised the PMO, specifically [director of parliamentary affairs] Patrick Rogers and [director of issues management] Chris Woodcock, that they should not be involved in the Senate audit and reports regarding Senator Duffy.” And that, “They discussed the draft Senate report pertaining to Senator Duffy, and the PMO staff present were urging to have the report amended to be less critical of Senator Duffy. He (Montgomery) wanted it to remain unchanged, and there was a clear disagreement on the issue.”

Montgomery could not recall “other times when representatives from the PMO actually attended meetings and insisted on wording of a Senate report.”

There are larger questions to be asked about the executive’s general involvement in the business of Parliament, but here the question might be simple: Is there any particular reason the PMO should have been involved in the drafting of a Senate committee report on Mike Duffy?


 

The Duffy affair: Where precisely is the beef?

  1. Whenever I think of Harper’s PMO, the term “skunk works” comes to mind.

  2. There is seemingly no end to the columns, reports and commentaries about this case. $90,000 – that is what was misspent, wasted, possibly corrupt payments – in a few seconds in the ORNGE, eHealth and many other scandals in Ontario, other provinces and the federal Liberals. It is OK that the MSM is out to get Stephen Harper, but do you ever stop to think about how this comes across to Joe Voter?

    • Joe Voter should consider that Harper is and has been consistently lying to Canadians. He stated he would never appoint ONE unelected Senator. Then appointed 59 who were sent out to fly all over Canada to raise money for the party on the taxpayer dime. Gerstein and Duffy ALONE spent $800,000 of taxpayer money to fly around Canada at fundraiser dinners for the Conservative party coffers! No wonder Harper said to Duffy: “You are my BEST and hardest working appointment ever!!”
      Everything was great until the public found out about his unethical and maybe illegal housing claims so Harper went into damage control to try and hide from Canadians what was really going on. If someone paid for Duffy’s claims then then Canadians don’t have to find out what was going on and Duffy could go back out to being his hardest working appointment ever and raise more cash for the coffers on the public dime! Canada does not need an unethical, immoral, narcissistic probably illegal PM.

  3. Duffygate is fundamentally about Harper – not Duffy.
    Harper chose Duffy and 58 other hacks and flacks for the Senate – and used them for his partisan purpose as fundraisers and cheerleaders across Canada.
    ADSCAM was about corruption at the heart of the Liberal gov’t.
    Duffygate is about corruption at the heart of the Harper’s office- and its leader!
    Which party – Liberal or Conservative – is the more corrupt?
    Tough call.

    • The senate has always been an open and clearly understood place to pay off loyal party campaign workers for their service to the party. This has been so for well over 100 years,

      Adscam was awarding bogus contracts to Liberal friend for no work with directly cash kickbacks to fund the Liberal party.

      A more direct comparison to the horror of adscam would be the use of funds allocated to work for the taxpayers in Ottawa and misdirected to fund salaries of partisan party workers in Quebec as the NDP has done.

  4. sounds like there are thousand of government workers who were using taxpayer funded e-mail accounts in order to have extramarital affairs. I would guess that total direct cost to the taxpayers would be far in excess of $90,000.

    Were any of the e-mails time stamped when the employees were getting paid to do their jobs?

    When is their going to be a list of suspensions and firings of the employees mis-using government resources?

    Why do I have to pay to help these people cheat on their significant others? Can’t they do it on their own time and resources?

    Who the heck will pay back the money wasted? The unions? Nigel Wright?

    • I hear that government employees also use government phones and computers to communicate with their spouses and children! Some of them may even use them to communicate with their dentists, doctor, mechanics and lord knows who else!

      *shriek*

  5. Re the issue of indebtedness: all Senators have jobs that include generous pay and benefits until age 75, are 100% secure (barring significant wrong doing), and literally only require that the Senator show up for work (during which he/she can pass the entire time playing Angry Birds). It’s really akin to winning the lottery. Heck, there was even one Senator who was legally, mentally incompetent, yet remained at work as there was no way (or desire, apparently) to formally remove her.

    So I have some difficulty understanding why the $90,000 payoff should make Duffy any more indebted to the person and/or party that appointed him than any other Senator. $90,000 is not a small sum of money, but it’s peanuts compared to an actual Senate appointment.

    It seems to me that the real issues here are the secrecy and the cover-up, not the payment itself.

  6. This whole mess is more about Harper and his style of government than anyone or anything else. Sure Duffy is a less-than-honest, sleazy opportunist, but he is more of a pawn in the grand scheme of things. What I want to know is when will Harper finally accept responsibility for his actions and apologise to Canadians for insisting on the inappropriate appointments to begin with, and then wasting this much time and money trying to cover it up and blame anyone but himself.

    To paraphrase Preston Manning, “if it weren’t for your lame-brained idea, we wouldn’t be in this situation in the first place!”. It will be interesting to see how he delivers his resignation speech on the evening of October 19, and whether he finally includes that apology there.

    • You are expecting some sort of apology…based on what precedence in Canadian politics….

      Perhaps it is that of Jean Chretien who not so long ago visited Putin. Maybe Chretien was not aware that Britain was running an enquiry into the murder of a KGB agent in London at the hands of a few men very highly placed in the Russian govt. under the orders of the friend he just visited.
      Some loyal Libs are calling Chretien a statesman for the visit….corruption appears to be in the eyes of the beholder.

      • Your response was about as relevant as those that Harper has been giving. My point is simple: for a man who took office on a promise to do better — to deliver integrity, openness, transparency and accountability — he has done a shamefully poor job. After nearly a decade in office, we are still waiting for him to deliver on any of those things.

        I am not the only one with criticisms for Harper and his government. If we listen to 2005-Harper, he has some rather blunt words for the sort of behaviour we have seen from PM Harper. By his own standards, he shouldn’t even wait to be voted out of office, but should feel compelled to resign immediately.

      • Ok, you’ve convinced me – neither Chretien or Harper will get my vote in October.

  7. The biggest issue I see here is Harper making a big issue over Duffy’s claims and then basically throwing him under the bus when he resisted the whole plan. There is nothing criminal here. Just political foolishness. They should have let Duffy’s expenses get audited and let the chips fall where they may. If Duffy was carrying two residences and needed to claim PEI as his main residence so be it. He should have been entitled to maybe a housing allowance in Ottawa that would approximate the cost of a reasonable apartment. That puts all the senators on an even footing unless they are Ontario senators who reside in Ottawa anyway. These politicians have to look over their shoulders too much because of a hostile media. If we were talking about Libs or NDP this wouldn’t be an issue. This has become a big issue because of the MSM and Harper wanting to impose his will and look good.

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