An improper brand of magnanimity

Some of Mike Duffy’s conduct seems rooted in something besides greed
Suspended Senator Mike Duffy leaves the Ontario Court of Justice, in Ottawa, Canada, April 8, 2015. Duffy, a former ally of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, is on trial for fraud and bribery in a high-profile case that could hurt the ruling Conservatives’ chances of winning an election this October. Blair Gable/Reuters

Suspended Senator Mike Duffy leaves the Ontario Court of Justice, in Ottawa

He lurched into Courtroom 33 this afternoon like a German Expressionist painting, a man crooked of shoulder, ruddy-faced and wired, a jumble of moving angles in the witness box.

On the $2,000 cheque that Duffy-associate Gerald Donohue signed over to him, he’s known as William Kittelberg, and this was how Crown prosecutor Jason Neubauer introduced him prior to his arrival. But those old enough to remember could recognize him—only just—as Bill Rodgers, an old on-camera CTV news henchman, first at Toronto city hall, later at Queen’s Park, and finally on Parliament Hill. But, really, there were few in the courtroom old enough.

When Rodgers-Kittelberg stepped, with halting gait, into the courtroom, something in his appearance caused a commotion, and briefly halted the proceedings. Maybe it was because he’s an arresting figure, much changed from his old TV days, and you could read his history on his face.

It was the 22nd day of the Duffy trial, this ordeal that began on April 7, on the matter of 31 charges of breach of trust, bribery and fraud. The allegations involve, among other things, a slew of improper travel expense claims Duffy filed with the Senate of Canada, and a $90,172 cheque he received from Nigel Wright, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s former chief of staff. Hence all the interest in this.

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But today, on the cusp of a three-week break in the trial, the arrival of Rodgers-Kittelberg drove home another dimension of the proceedings, at least for the lay, non-lawyering observers at Ottawa’s Elgin Street courthouse. It reminded us of the human factor: how what took place here may have had lots to do with a strange idea of friendship, and the ties that bind an old and vanishing Ottawa tribe.

Because laced through the sordid details chronicled in Courtroom 33—the strange business dealings, partisan politics, the backbiting—has been this web of relationships, hints of interlaced histories, and it’s only these considerations, really, that can cause a day like today to make any sense.

Rodgers-Kittelberg told court he met Duffy when he arrived in Ottawa as a reporter for CFTO, CTV’s local Toronto iteration, in the 1980s. They became friendly, therefore, at a time when the Ottawa press gallery was a carousing band—full of “pep”—and they stayed friendly as each moved into politics.

Duffy, of course, joined the Senate in 2009; Rodgers-Kittelberg became a PR man for former Harper cabinet minister Jim Prentice, following him through the various portfolios he held as an elected Tory in Ottawa—Indian and Northern Affairs, Industry Canada, Environment Canada. That PR career ended after a brief stint with John Baird.

Duffy? Rodgers-Kittelberg, with his Otto Dix haircut, remembered the days when reporters called Duffy “the Senator” even when he wasn’t—back when Duffy called a Senate appointment the “taskless thanks.”

The reminiscence caused Duffy to beam.

Indeed, you could sense a warmth in Duffy as he looked out to his old friend, one you don’t see all the time. When other of his old associates have occupied the witness box there has been less engagement, a coolness, but here there was an atmosphere almost of brotherliness.

Rodgers-Kittelberg and Duffy talked lots after Duffy got to the Senate, he said, and it was because of these chitchats that Bill got paid. Under Neubauer’s gentle questioning, he told court that they spoke of such issues as climate change, copyright, Aboriginal issues, a host of things he’d worked on, mostly with Prentice.

“He was kind of just picking my brain,” he said. “It was just between two friends who were both in government.”

He never asked to be paid, nor expected it. But then one day, on the telephone, Duffy suggested it. “He said, you’ve given me some good advice,” Rodgers-Kittelberg told the court. “And I should really pay you for this.

“I said that wasn’t necessary.”

In fact, there was a suggestion Rodgers-Kittelberg found it odd.

“Because we’re friends,” he said. “I didn’t expect payment … usually friends don’t ask for money for advice.” He added: “That’s what I got paid for in government.”

Even so, the payment happened. Duffy even told him the process.

“He sad he was going to give Gerry Donohue a call,” Rodgers-Kittelberg said. “And ask if he had funds on hand to pay me.”

The Crown alleges that Duffy used two companies associated with the Donohue family—Maple Ridge Media Inc. and Ottawa ICF—to shuttle money hither and thither outside of Senate oversight. Prosecutors say Duffy used this method to pay people for services that otherwise would not have been allowed under Senate rules. People including his cousin, his longtime makeup artist—even his friend, Rodgers-Kittelberg.

Donohue was known to Senate staff as one of Duffy’s chief contractors, whose companies provided editorial and speechwriting services; his signature is on all these cheques.

Rodgers-Kittelberg knew of Donohue vaguely as someone who’d once worked for CJOH, CTV’s Ottawa channel. “I thought it was unusual to have a third party pay me,” he said, “although I understand this happens in the Senate frequently” (he said the RCMP investigator who interviewed him prior to his appearance told him this).

At about this point, Neubauer caused an email to appear on the screens mounted at various locations around the courtroom. It was from Duffy.

“Gerry,” it began. “Bill Rodgers has been helping me with background on energy issues this month. Do we have enough on hand to send him 2K? I’ll get him to flip you an invoice?”

The missive continues, more mysteriously: “He has been off for the last six months, so maybe that would be easiest.”

In an email to Rodgers-Kittelberg, Duffy gives him instructions on how to invoice Donohue and get paid. “Good luck with your daughter,” he ends the email. “Mike.”

Rodgers-Kittelberg did what he was told, got the cheque and cashed it—the cheque, too, appeared on those big-screen TVs around the courtroom.

And this is how a little more than four weeks of trial concluded before a three-week break. With Rodgers-Kittelberg leaving the witness box, then sitting to pass a few minutes in a spot in the gallery normally reserved for reporters, like he used to be—killing time, he said, while the afternoon Ottawa traffic remained heavy.

It was a day of sadness. Former Tory MP Dean Del Mastro, convicted last fall of violating the Canada Elections Act in the 2008 federal election—he now awaits sentencing—testified by telephone in the morning, sounding quiet, tragic even. He is a friend of Duffy’s, the former MP told court. It was Del Mastro that Duffy says he was visiting in Peterborough, Ont., when prosecutors said he purchased a puppy, later charging the trip to the taxpayer.

If Duffy did all the things the Crown alleges he did—none of this is anywhere near certain, and many weeks of trial remain—then he’s guilty of avarice.

But some of the payments, even many of them, seem rooted in something besides greed. Not quite generosity—but an improper brand of magnanimity.

Court reporter Nicholas Köhler on the Duffy trial