OTTAWA – The Senate drama over the ouster of three former Tory stalwarts provided mixed signals Friday as the government simultaneously dangled clemency while forcing a swift hanging vote.
Sen. Patrick Brazeau, who along with Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin, has been embroiled in a year-long expense scandal, provided the saga’s latest eye-popper when he revealed he’d been offered what he called “a back-room deal.”
The three senators all face unprecedented two-year suspensions without pay, despite not having been charged with any offence and while maintaining they did not knowingly fleece taxpayers.
Brazeau said Claude Carignan, the prime minister’s appointee as government leader in the Senate, had approached him outside the chamber Friday morning.
“I’ll be very careful about my words here, but I was essentially offered a back-room deal,” Brazeau told a stunned Senate chamber.
“And the back-room deal was that if I stood in this chamber, apologized to Canadians and took responsibility for my actions, that my punishment would be lesser than what is being proposed.”
Brazeau said he was “very disturbed” by the approach because he continues to maintain his innocence. The whole thrust of the raging Senate debate is to provide the outcast trio of senators due process to defend themselves.
Carignan did not deny the exchange took place, characterizing it as an act of kindness. He noted that mitigating or aggravating factors can help determine a penalty.
“I spoke to him out of friendship in saying, Sen. Brazeau, please suggest something. Apologize. Perhaps a lighter sanction. Something that we can come up with to find the right balance,” Carignan told the Senate.
“I did that in confidence and frankly I did so in an attempt to help him.”
Carignan, a lawyer, said he regretted that Brazeau “perceived that as an attack.”
“Perhaps I had too strong of an urge to help him,” he added.
Later, Carignan said outside the chamber he’s open to changing the suspension terms for both Brazeau and Wallin, but not Duffy.
The Carignan offer came shortly after the government introduced a motion Friday morning that will force an end to debate on the suspension motions.
And it preceded word that Prime Minister Stephen Harper recorded rare one-on-one interviews Friday with radio stations in Saskatoon, Toronto and Halifax in an effort to smooth troubled waters.
Add it all up and it was a portrait of a Conservative party scrambling to do damage control ahead of next week’s policy convention in Calgary.
“Nobody’s coming out of here unblemished,” Daniel Lang, the Conservative senator from Yukon, groused in the chamber.
James Cowan, the Liberal Senate leader, said the unseemly haste to punish Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau after months of inaction — and after Harper delayed the return of Parliament this fall by a month — is raising alarm bells of a coverup.
“This chamber has quite literally done no work other than consider these motions,” Cowan said in the Senate.
“The government has not even moved its own speech from the throne — the much-heralded new vision of the Harper government for Canadians — the reason why the prime minister said he had to had to prorogue Parliament.”
Even some Conservative senators, and at least one Conservative MP, are complaining about the haste and lack of due process.
Sen. Don Plett, a former Conservative party president and Harper loyalist, said he would propose his own amendment next week, but repeated Friday that he does not support the government’s suspension motion.
“Due process sometimes takes a bit of time,” Plett said outside the chamber.
“In my opinion, if we can slow it down a little bit we are the chamber of sober second thought, so let’s simply go with sober second thought.”
Plett said he has been getting emails “10-1 in support of what I’m doing.”
Harper dismissed criticism about the lack of due process in one of his radio interviews.
“I guess what I would say and what I think most Canadians would say is if you did that in your work, your boss wouldn’t wait for you to be convicted of a crime, your boss would say that and that alone requires that some action be taken in terms of your job,” Harper told NewsTalk 1010 radio host John Tory in an interview that lasted only about six minutes and also touched on the proposed Canada-EU trade deal.
Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau have paid back tens of thousands of dollars in Senate expense claims that were subsequently ruled ineligible, although the circumstances of each case are somewhat different.
Duffy’s is the most controversial, because of a secret, $90,000 personal cheque written by Harper’s former chief of staff to cover the P.E.I. senator’s arrears.
That matter is now under RCMP investigation, another reason many have argued the Senate should not wade in with a summary suspension judgment — “capital punishment” in the words of Tory Sen. Hugh Segal — at this time.
Liberal Sen. Terry Mercer noted Friday that MP Dean Del Mastro, Harper’s former parliamentary secretary, was recently charged under the Elections Act but no Conservative is threatening to suspend him without pay.
“What’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” said Mercer.
Wallin, as she left the Senate building late Friday, called it an amazing week of debate.
“I hope everybody take a few days and thinks this through,” she said.