Not since the emperor Nero has the curl in a political leader’s little finger carried such freight of meaning. In the photograph it hangs there, pointing down, in the manner of a thumb communicating that most awful sentence—execution—and at the same time prime minister Stephen Harper is wrinkling his lip.
Sure, he’s clad in an everyman’s hockey jersey—but the photo says all you need to know about how icy cold command gets in Ottawa. Especially in February.
“He’s sitting, wearing a hockey sweater,” Sen. Mike Duffy tells those gathered in Courtroom 33, at Ottawa’s Elgin Street courthouse, where Duffy is on trial for 31 charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery.
“Well—well—first of all—I’m showing you a photograph,” Duffy’s lawyer, Donald Bayne, says, interrupting his client.
It is the photo of Harper with the curled little finger. It becomes Exhibit 104.
In a day of riveting testimony—when for example Duffy twice calls Sen. Vern White a “thug”—this official Prime Minister’s Office photograph is still the highlight.
Duffy testifies the photo was taken on Feb. 13, 2013, while he was discussing with the PM the housing allowance he claimed, as a senator for Prince Edward Island, even as he lived at the home he’s owned for years in Kanata, the Ottawa suburb.
Here, in essence, is the core charge now against him, and he is pleading his case with the PM back before the scandal hit, when there is still a chance of evading censure.
In the picture Duffy wears a good dark suit, French cuffs and a polka-dot tie. A white poof escapes his breast pocket. Duffy plays the role of supplicant.
Swaddled within the folds of that hockey jersey, meanwhile, propped up on his upper thigh, the PM’s paunch sits just below Duffy’s eye level.
It appears to be just as unhappy as Harper.
“I’m making my case to the prime minister,” Duffy testifies of this moment. “That this was unfair, that I put my shoulder to the wheel on his behalf, and that I was being forced to do something that would make me look like a dishonest person.”
His “shoulder to the wheel” is a reference to all the “friend-raising” Duffy engaged in, during his frequent political appearances around the country, designed to swing skeptical voters Harper’s way. Duffy says the PM and his staffers demanded that he undertake much of this travel, and that the travel diminished the time he spent in P.E.I.
“If you want the verbatim, I can give it to you,” Duffy goes on to say.
“Yes, please,” Bayne tells his client. It is Duffy’s sixth day in the witness box.
“I said, you know, ‘I’m being railroaded here. I’m being told that I must admit I made a mistake and repay the money when I don’t believe I made a mistake. I followed all the rules, I followed the advice I was given at the time I was sworn in—advice that came from the very top—and now they’re saying you don’t spend enough time on P.E.I.’ ”
This, Duffy tells court, left Harper unmoved.
“He said, ‘Well, you only spent 66 days.’ And I said, ‘That’s a lie.’ ”
Duffy is today pleading his own case all over again, as a witness in his own trial.
Tomorrow, lead prosecutor Mark Holmes will begin his cross-examination, which is sure to be withering. But right now it is still Bayne asking the questions.
” ‘Prime Minister, when I wasn’t on Prince Edward Island, I was either here working in the Senate or was on the road for you on the rubber-chicken circuit,’ ” Duffy recalls telling Harper.
“He just looked at me with a blank look.”
Now Duffy the raconteur adopts the low voice of the prime minister.
” ‘No no no, I know it seems unfair, I know you didn’t break the rules,’ ” Duffy says in his best Harper voice. ” ‘But the rules are inexplicable to our base. And therefore you’re going to have to pay the money back. Nigel will make the arrangements.’
“And with that he kind of dismissed me.”
“I was in shock,” Duffy goes on. “I thought, you know, how can someone be so disloyal to someone who’s been so loyal to him?”
For a former TV star and political luminary, a man who habitually took centre stage at news events and hustings stops across Canada, here, in Courtroom 33, was the performance of a lifetime.
Duffy testified he always believed his expenses were within the rules, and that he was forced into his housing-allowance mea culpa for reasons of political expediency. The PMO directive, he also testified, was followed by a threat: do it, or get booted from caucus and from the Senate of Canada.
“Don’t make me do this, it’s going to ruin my reputation, my life will be ruined,” he said he told Harper aide Ray Novak.
“I didn’t break the rules and I don’t owe the money and why would I want to put a stain in my name, my reputation, my wife, my kids and my grandchildren—’oh, your grandfather was the cheat?’ I’m not a cheat! I’m not a thief! I don’t break the rules…
“All these born-again Christians are throwing me to the lions and I was pleading for some decency to give me a hearing, give me a chance to tell my side of the story!”
It was outstanding melodrama (even that photograph, an ingenious bauble perhaps designed by the defence to distract spectators from the issue at hand).
“No honest person would ever agree to what they were demanding,” Duffy very nearly shouted from within the witness box.
He did in fact agree—he “capitulated,” to use Bayne’s preferred word. On Feb. 22, 2013, he told TV journalists he may have made a mistake, and committed to repaying his dubious claims. PMO emails entered as evidence in this trial make it plain this was all scripted for Duffy by members of Harper’s staff.
Duffy could not resist comparing his appearance to a prisoner’s declaration on North Korean television.
He said he wanted desperately to bring his case before independent Deloitte auditors examining senators’ expenses, believing they would find he’d conformed with the rules (a development that court has heard was a very real possibility); he said PMO staffers and Senate leaders stymied these efforts.
He claimed he never sought the $90,000 cheque from Wright that the Crown now alleges was a bribe, and only said he did not have the money to repay his entitlements as a last-ditch effort to convince Wright and the PMO not to force him into the scenario.
He said he did not want to claim the money as his own. “Suck it up and fall on your sword for the boss,” he said they told him.
Duffy said he did not even realize the money came from Wright himself—he thought at the time he received the infusion from the Conservative Fund of Canada, the Conservative party’s fundraising arm. All along, he believed the PMO staffers, most of whom were lawyers, were not advising him to do anything illegal.
Frequently, one was left with the impression that here was a man suffering from self-aggrandizing paranoia, a persecution complex of truly Truman-esque proportions, who had actually been subjected to months of persecution, culminating in his dismissal from the Conservative party caucus and from the Senate of Canada.
“The fix was in,” he would say, or: “Here we’re building these gallows and we’re going to hang him on it!”
In the midst of this scenario, inflicted upon him by those he trusted, Duffy was alone, beaten—accused of defying the prime minister, yet wanting desperately for the PM to recognize his innocence, to reach that hand in and, little finger and all, extricate him from the horror.
“It was about politics with a capital P,” Duffy said at one point and, at another: “Politics at its most despicable! And after what I’ve been through, why would anyone want to get involved with these kinds of people.”
Tomorrow the Crown has at him.