Parliament Hill's very own Hogwarts

#DuffyTrial hears senators' assistants aren't schooled on finance rules

Suspened Senator Mike Duffy arrives at court in Ottawa on Monday, June 15, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Suspened Senator Mike Duffy arrives at court in Ottawa on Monday, June 15, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

One morning mid-last week, presumably, in the office of Senate Speaker Leo Housakos, where she works as a parliamentary affairs adviser, Loren Cicchini received an unexpected call.

It was from RCMP investigators working the trial of suspended senator Mike Duffy.

On Wednesday, she gave the Mounties a statement. Today, she appeared in court as a witness.

“To tell you the truth, I was quite taken aback and surprised,” Cicchini said of that call from police, under cross-examination this afternoon by Duffy’s lawyer, Donald Bayne. “It was very upsetting.”

Here is a hint of how quickly prosecutors are working to sew together this quilt. As late as this morning, Cicchini had no idea she’d be testifying today, according to what lead Crown prosecutor Mark Holmes told court before her arrival in the witness box.

That meant that she arrived in court dressed for her work at the Senate—elegant in a royal blue tunic-style jacket, her hair fashionably cut.

And so there is an increasingly ad hoc flavour to the proceedings in Courtroom 33, where Duffy, suspended senator for Prince Edward Island, is on trial facing 31 counts of fraud, breach of trust and bribery.

    Such is the Crown’s case for the moment, or so it would appear: the shifts in strategy coming at such a clip that even witnesses go to bed not knowing what the next day holds for them. They are unlucky: As witnesses in the Duffy trial, what’s in store for them is Donald Bayne.

    Cicchini held up well under Bayne’s assault this afternoon. (He employed many of his little devices: the volume, the bone-rattling condescension, even that trick where he unfurls your very own police statement before you, like some unsavoury artifact he’d just as soon not touch.)

    Cicchini’s first name—Loren—had been one of two dropped by Duffy’s former executive assistant, Melanie Mercer, a week ago today. Mercer testified that two veteran Senate staffers—Loren and Gillian—had shown her the ropes, administratively, shortly after she arrived to work for Duffy in Centre Block in early 2009. The suggestion was that Senate admin higher-ups had organized this shadowing for official training purposes.

    Specifically, Mercer told court that Gillian, in Cicchini’s presence, advised her to keep pre-signed travel expense forms on hand as a convenience—an administrative irregularity this court later heard was widely practised in both the Senate and the House of Commons.

    Mercer said Cicchini heard this advice and had nothing to add to it, leaving Mercer with the impression of her tacit approval.

    Today, Cicchini said she had no memory of that chat, but allowed under Bayne’s cross-examination that something like it may well have taken place. She also said she remembers helping Mercer lots—they worked in neighbouring offices—but that she always advised her to ask finance clerks for such help: “They’re the authorities.”

    Cicchini echoed the testimony of others, when she said that pre-signed travel claim forms were not unheard of in the Senate, and that—indeed—as an executive assistant to two senators earlier in her career, she herself had taken recourse in the practice for routine travel.

    It was more efficient, she testified, and was based on the senator’s trust in his or her EA.

    (The advent of electronic expense filing a couple of years ago ended this pre-certification habit in the Senate.)

    Cicchini’s late-breaking testimony, as well as the appearance of Senate finance clerk Maggie Bourgeau, who testified today and last Friday, and whom police first contacted last week, was likely prompted by Mercer’s claim from the witness box that Senate admin assigned her a veteran executive assistant to “shadow” for training purposes.

    Mercer also testified that it was Bourgeau who taught her how to fill in the primary-residence declaration forms Duffy signed annually, thereby certifying that he lived mainly in P.E.I. That testimony bolstered Bayne’s position that he was merely following the Senate’s own hazy directives when he claimed to live in P.E.I.

    But Bourgeau testified she could not remember tutoring Mercer on the declaration forms. And Cicchini, a Senate staffer since 1990 who has also worked in the offices of the last three Senate speakers, told Holmes she’d never been Mercer’s “teacher,” nor heard of any specific occasion in which Senate admin assigned new staffers to veterans to learn the job. (Bayne, in cross, got Cicchini to say she’d heard of the contemplation of such training, but that’s it.)

    On these narrow points, we can acknowledge that the Crown’s last-minute additions did good Crown work, diminishing the credibility of a witness—Mercer—who, it should be remembered, the prosecutors themselves called, and yet whose testimony may have surprised everyone.

    But they also caused damage to the Crown—especially Cicchini.

    Cicchini’s current position in Speaker Housakos’s office permitted Bayne to raise Auditor General Michael Ferguson’s report on Senate spending, published last Tuesday, in as direct a fashion as we have yet heard in Courtroom 33.

    “So you’ve been right in the thick of the auditor general’s report?” he asked her more than once. “And your employer—he’s directly involved?”

    “As a speaker, yes,” she answered.

    We’ll leave it at that, Bayne said, leaving unsaid Housakos’s present circumstances: He’s one of three top senators whom Ferguson flags, along with 27 others, for questionable expenses. (Housakos announced his intention to repay the objectionable expenses.)

    And Cicchini’s testimony allowed Bayne to further burnish his notion of the Senate as a kind of real-life Hogwarts, a chaotic institution where antiquated 19th-century norms and practices persisted into the 21st century—handwritten expense claims, for example—and where, under the noses of those charged with monitoring them, naughty EAs and senators got up to lots of mischievous little pranks, like pre-signing expense claim forms.

    (Cicchini said the practice of pre-signing forms was “not the kind of information I would have volunteered”! Bourgeau agreed she’d be surprised to learn of such goings-on!)

    There was, Cicchini said, no officially sanctioned training for new arrivals in this mysterious domain of Gothic spires and olde-worlde, higgledy-piggledy ways. She testified she was left to her own devices, and the generosity of other administrators, to learn what was required of her when she arrived, and she said the same was true when Mercer showed up as Duffy’s EA 20 years later. If there was no official “shadow” training to teach Mercer how to pre-sign expense forms, that is only because there was no training—period, nada, zilch, zero—and no system in place for instilling in newcomers correct protocols.

    Not exactly the paradise of oversight the Crown might prefer the Senate to be, and sometimes suggest it was.

    Now, just stop to think about that. The place runs on public money, and there is no manual designed to teach administrators how to handle those dollars. That is straight-up nuts.

    So it makes sense that there was something generally ridiculous about the proceedings today, and, at one point, Duffy performed a small gesture that embodied that flavour. Late to return to court after a break, he slipped in the door, scurried down the aisle, and bowed at the sitting judge—deeply, like a character from Seven Samurai. Of course, bowing is routine courtroom protocol: Only the solemn obsequiousness of his manner made it comical.

    Otherwise, he has become the hollow centre of his own trial: Apart from his being bodily present in the courtroom, he is almost entirely absent, silent, like a mannequin or wax figure seated in his own trial. A reverse homunculus, stripped more and more of his defining qualities as the trial develops.

    Who knows? The Crown gamble—if it was a gamble—may well pay off. And tomorrow launches a new dimension in the proceedings: Holmes and his Crown partner, Jason Neubauer, hope to call a forensic accountant as an expert witness, and we will receive a tour of Duffy’s personal finances, a new front that will lead us into the territory of Nigel Wright’s $90,000 cheque.

    That is, if Bayne does not succeed tomorrow in derailing the Crown’s plan. He means to.

    Will it be another legal interlude of stultifying density and length? Bayne will stop at nothing. That is just what Duffy is paying him for.

    Court reporter Nicholas Köhler on the Duffy trial

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