Politics

Newsmakers of 2013: Mike Duffy

Once the Tories’ star money-maker, Duffy emerged as the Prime Minister’s most formidable foe

Chris Wattie/Reuters

“Wait! There’s even more!” Standing on the floor of the red chamber last October, Mike Duffy sounded like a huckster from a late-night infomercial. But it was a bankable truth. For most of 2013, the 67-year-old senator for P.E.I. dominated the political agenda in Ottawa, whether via the allegations, innuendo and conspiracies he has been busy spreading around town or the RCMP investigation that has followed in his wake.

Caught out for inappropriate expense claims—designating his island cottage as his primary residence, and taking per diems while he was on vacation or party business—the “Old Duff” at first appeared to be taking the high road, repaying $90,172.24. “I filled out the Senate forms in good faith and believed I was in compliance with the rules. Now it turns out I may have been mistaken,” he told the media in February.

However, it soon emerged that it wasn’t his own money. In May, Nigel Wright, Stephen Harper’s chief of staff, admitted he had cut a personal cheque to cover the bill, and resigned. Ever since, the scandal over the senator’s expenses, and the Tory party’s furious efforts to bury the story, have crept closer and closer to the Prime Minister.

Duffy, a heavyweight presence in the Parliament Hill press gallery from the early 1970s on, had always coveted what he termed “the taskless thanks”—a seat in the Senate. His open and shameless lobbying was the stuff of legend. “Mr. Chrétien once told me that every time Mike saw him in the corridor he’d yell out, ‘Prime Minister, I’m ready! I’m ready!’ ” says Eddie Goldenberg, a former Liberal chief of staff. And when Harper finally granted Duffy his wish in late 2008, it seemed a perfect match. Duffy got the title, paycheque and comfortable insider’s pew, while the Tories gained a name who could pack events across Canada and convince partisans to open their wallets for the cause.

OTHER 2013 NEWSMAKERS

But his free-spending habits and famously loose lips soon proved a problem. A recent RCMP court filing details dozens of emails that flew back and forth last winter and spring between apparatchiks and party brass. “My only concern is Sen. Duffy,” wrote Sen. Marjory LeBreton, then the government leader in the upper chamber. “Even though he claims he is careful in what he says and does, the evidence is the opposite!”

Indeed, after the attempt to quietly buy Duffy out of his jam gave way to efforts to punish him—first by forcing him from caucus, then suspending him from the Senate—the former broadcaster proved a formidable foe. Often he has been the one shaping the news through carefully timed disclosures. And the grenades he lobbed during the fight to hold on to his seat—including the revelation that the party covered a further $13,000 of his legal fees—are still exploding. It may not turn out to be the “monstrous fraud” he alleged in October, but the RCMP have indicated they believe both Duffy and Wright committed crimes in their attempts to sweep things under the rug. (Three other senators who made improper expense claims—Pamela Wallin, Patrick Brazeau and Mac Harb—are also under police investigation.) And at least 12 senior Conservatives, including six people in the PM’s office, knew of the former chief of staff’s deal with Duffy, raising many uncomfortable questions for their boss.

Wright, like the senator, maintains he acted lawfully. But last February, he wrote a prescient email to a colleague. “I think,” it said, “that this is going to end badly.”