The RCMP’s investigation into Senator Mike Duffy bloated personal expenses claims and former chief of Staff Nigel Wright’s cover-up attempt has now reached the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, RCMP contacted Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s office on Wednesday July 24, 2013 to cooperate with their investigation.
A senior police official told the PMO; “We encouraged all current and former staff to assist the RCMP.” A senior government official confirmed that they contacted the office and the PMO will comply stating; “The RCMP has contacted us and we’re assisting with their investigation.”
PMO spokesman Carl Vallee confirmed; “of course we will assist with ongoing investigations into this matter.” While Julie Vaux, the PMO’s press secretary reiterated that Wright acted alone and the rest of the office did not know about his actions; “This file was handled by Nigel Wright and he has taken sole responsibility.”
The latest development has prompted additional criticism from the Liberals, who are now leading in the polls for the 2015 federal election. Liberal MP Marc Garneau spoke at a news conference in Ottawa stating; “The very fact the police need to visit the PMO demonstrates that the Conservatives have been anything but clear and transparent and that they have certainly not released all relevant information… Mr. Harper and the Conservative government can’t sweep the scandal away with a cabinet shuffle or a bunch of now-discredited talking points.”
The RCMP is particularly looking for an email from Wright to Duffy that outlines the terms of the repayment deal. The police requested from the PMO the email from Feb. 20, 2013; which is the key piece of evidence. The PMO insists they know nothing about the email and are not impeding the investigations into the Wright-Duffy Affair. Julie Vaux told the press last week; “Our office has not been asked for this email. As we have always said, we will assist investigations into this matter.”
The RCMP last week was showing reticence in directly involving the PMO in the investigation because of the political ramifications. The police still is reluctant to request a search warrant for the PMO, hoping the office will cooperate and avoid further embarrassment for the Harper Government. A warrant is still an option if the RCMP will not get the cooperation and assistance they are looking for.
The Senate expense scandal erupted this spring has caused distress for the Harper government and prompted three senators to be expelled from the Conservative caucus; Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin, and Patrick Brazeau for inappropriately claiming funds for personal expenses that did not exist. A forth senator, a Liberal, Mac Harb is also involved in the scandal. All four senators have claimed housing and travel expenses that were inflated or may have not existed.
Duffy claimed living expenses for a primary residence in Prince Edward Island (PEI) however, for most of his officials documents including his passport Duffy uses for his official residence his home address in Ottawa.
A Senate audit discovered the extent of falsely claimed expenses from the four senators and funds that they owe the government. The senators are required to return the funds. Duffy repaid what his owes on March 25, Wallin is in the midst of making payments, Brazeau who was unable to return the funds by the date requested by the Senate is now having his pay docked to retrieve the funds, while Harb made his repayment in early in July.
The scandal extended to Harper’s inner circle when it was discovered that Harper’s chief of staff, Nigel Wright gave a personal check for $90,172 in February to cover the money Senator Duffy inappropriately claimed. Wright said the Senate believed that Duffy only owed a third of the amount he did owe, and they were willing to repay that amount, but not the inflated sum of 90,000, that was when Wright offered to cover the expenses as a “gift.”
Wright promptly resigned in May, five days after the check was made public. In announcing his resignation he claimed sole responsibility for his actions; “My actions were intended solely to secure the repayment of funds, which I considered to be in the public interest, and I accept sole responsibility. I did not advise the prime minister of the means by which Senator Duffy’s expenses were repaid, either before or after the fact.”
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) announced in the middle of June that they have been conducting a criminal investigation into primary Duffy’s, but also Wright’s actions. The RCMP has been investing Duffy for fraud and breach of trust since March.
The RCMP’s affidavit documents were filed on June 24, and made public in the beginning of July indicate that Wright gave Duffy the check on two conditions that Duffy returns the funds he took immediately to the Senate and that he stop speaking to the press about the issue. The RCMP is trying to determine if Wright is a suspect or a witness in their investigation.
The RCMP has been questioning senators with further knowledge of the events including senators Carolyn Stewart-Olsen and George Furey. Senator David Tkachuk, who had been chair of the Senate committee on internal economy and that notified Duffy as to the complete amount he owed the Senate, has made a deal to speak with investigators as well. Apparently the day prior to Senate Leader Marjorie LeBreton’s resignation from her cabinet post; she was questioned by the RCMP.
Prime Minister Harper has maintained throughout the scandal that Wright acted alone and was not requested to cover Duffy’s expenses. Speaking at the beginning of July at the news conference on the Lac-Megantic train derailment in Quebec Harper responded to a question on Wright stating; “It was a decision of Mr. Wright and he will be held accountable for that.”
Harper has emphatically claimed to known Wright’s involvement and that he only discovered what his chief of staff was doing when the public did in mid-May; “I think if you read the affidavit it makes very clear that the decision to pay money to Mr. Duffy out of Mr. Wright’s personal funds was made solely by Mr. Wright and was his responsibility. Obviously, had I known about this earlier I would never have allowed this to take place. When I answered questions about this in the House of Commons, I answered questions to the best of my knowledge.”
According to the RCMP’s affidavit documents Wright was not the only one in the PMO with knowledge of the repayment. The Affidavit states; “Mr. Wright recalls that he told the following people that he would personally provide funds to repay Duffy’s … expenses.”
Wright supposedly told his assistant David van Hemmen, Harper’s special council and legal adviser Benjamin Perrin, and Chris Woodcock, the director of issues management who as of last Thursday is no longer working for the PMO. Perrin has already left the PMO’s office in April, and maintains he did not know about Wright’s repayment check.
Supposedly a fourth person and the only one outside the PMO that had knowledge of the check was the Chair of the Conservative Fund Senator Irving Gerstein. In February, Gerstein was planning to pay off Duffy’s expenses with Conservative Party funds until he discovered the amount was not around 30,000 but over 90,000. Gerstein decided the amount was too much for the party to cover.
The Liberal’s have demanded access to documents relating to the scandal, believing that the Privy Council Office and the Justice Department; two government offices closely related to the PMO have additional knowledge and documents relating the scandal. Both government bodies however, responded to access-to-information requests by stating; “no relevant documents.”
The investigations are getting hotter and too close to home for the Prime Minister. Harper has been trying to refocus attention away from the Duffy-Wright Affair and back to his policy agenda. In a first step Harper unveiled his newly reshuffled cabinet on July 15; next up in the fall is the Throne Speech to the House of Commons and the Conservative Party policy convention at the end of the October. However, as long as there is an ongoing investigation, attention and energy will continue to be diverted away from the policy matters that matter most to Canadians, putting Harper’s ability to govern in peril.
- Who’s who in the Senate expense controversy
- Read the RCMP’s Affidavit Document
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are US, Canadian & International politics.