OTTAWA – Sen. Mike Duffy says Prime Minister Stephen Harper, concerned about how the senator’s burgeoning expense scandal was going over with the Conservative “base,” ordered him to repay $90,000 in disallowed housing allowance claims.
In a riveting speech to his Senate colleagues, Duffy spun a tale of “conspiracy” as he described a February meeting with Harper and his then chief of staff, Nigel Wright, during which the senator pleaded his innocence.
“But the prime minister wasn’t interested in explanations or the truth,” Duffy said, recounting what Harper himself told him.
“‘It’s not about what you did,’” Duffy quoted Harper as saying. “‘It’s about the perception of what you did that’s been created in the media. The rules are inexplicable to our base’ …
“I was ordered by the prime minister to pay the money back, end of discussion.”
Duffy said when he later complained that he couldn’t afford to pay the money back, Wright offered to “write the cheque.” He does not, however, make clear whether Harper was privy to that part of the discussion.
Duffy said he spoke by telephone several times with Wright, repeatedly insisting that to “pay back money I didn’t owe would destroy my reputation.”
“The PMO piled on the pressure. Some honourable senators called me in P.E.I. One senator in particular left several particularly nasty and menacing messages: ‘Do what the prime minister wants, do it for the PM and for the good of the party.’
“Finally, the message from the PMO became, ‘Do what we want or else.’”
The “else,” Duffy said, was that the Conservatives on the powerful steering committee of the Senate’s board of internal economy, David Tkachuk and Carolyn Stewart Olsen, would declare him unqualified to sit as a senator.
“‘However, if you do what we want, the prime minister will publicly confirm that you’re entitled to sit as a senator for P.E.I. and you won’t lose your seat,’” Duffy quoted Wright as saying.
“I said, ‘They don’t have the power to do that.’ He said, ‘Agree to what we want right now or else.’”
Duffy said he made one last effort, arguing he’d done nothing wrong and didn’t have the money to reimburse the Senate in any event.
“‘Don’t worry,’ Nigel said. ‘I’ll write the cheque. Let the lawyers handle the details, you just follow the plan and we’ll keep Carolyn Stewart Olsen and David Tkachuk at bay.’”
Duffy said at least two PMO lawyers were involved in crafting the deal.
Duffy is protected from legal action over the allegations because his comments were made in the Senate chamber. He also did not provide documentation, though claimed to have written material that would back up his allegations.
The embattled senator’s remarkable narrative — his first extensive public comments since the scandal erupted earlier this year — comes as the Senate debates the merits of a concerted Conservative effort to censure him and two other former Conservative colleagues.
Duffy and former Conservative caucus colleagues Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau face the prospect of suspension without pay for “gross negligence” in their management of Senate resources.
A number of Conservative and Liberal senators say the move amounts to finding the trio, who are under RCMP investigation, guilty before they’ve been charged or convicted of any crime.
Duffy and Wallin have threatened to challenge the move in court and Brazeau is asking for a public hearing into his expenses.
Citing numerous court rulings in the past, Claude Carignan — government leader in the Senate — maintained the Senate has the exclusive power to govern its own internal affairs and to impose sanctions on those who break its rules.
The Senate has already concluded that Duffy and Brazeau broke the rules for claiming housing allowances and living expenses and that Wallin broke the rules for claiming travel expenses, he noted. And he said all three have recognized their transgressions by agreeing to reimburse the chamber.
The violations “occurred in such a manner and with such frequency that it constitutes wilful contempt to our institution,” Carignan said, arguing that they “must act with disciplinary action to protect its dignity as well as preserve the public trust in the Senate and Parliament.”
A vote on the suspension motions was not expected until Wednesday at the earliest. Carignan earlier said that Conservative senators would be allowed to vote as they see fit.
Before Carignan could formally move to suspend the trio, Brazeau informed the chamber he has a motion of his own calling for an open hearing into his expenses. He said the hearing should be conducted by the Senate’s internal economy committee and that he and his lawyer be allowed to speak there.
Duffy applauded his motion.
Liberal and Conservative Senate caucuses met separately prior to the debate getting underway to discuss their approach to the motions. Some senators on both sides expressed concern about the rush to judgment against the trio of disgraced senators.
“We don’t bring people into court for sentencing before we’ve actually had a discussion about whether they are guilty of anything or what it is they might be guilty of,” said Conservative Sen. Hugh Segal.
“This motion is a sentencing motion. … Something is, in my view, out of order.”
Sen. Marjory LeBreton responded briefly to an allegation from Duffy’s lawyer, Donald Bayne, that she wrote to Duffy in 2009 telling him that Senate residency rules were not defined.
Asked whether she had sent him such a message, LeBreton said, “Absolutely not.”