OTTAWA – The once-towering case against Sen. Mike Duffy was coming apart at the seams Thursday as an Ontario Court judge dismissed 16 of the 31 charges faced by the man at the centre of the long-running Senate expense scandal, finding him not guilty on four others.
After 62 days of hearings, Ontario Court Justice Charles Vaillancourt was delivering his long-awaited decision to a packed Ottawa courtroom, declaring Duffy not guilty on two counts each of fraud under $5,000 and breach of trust.
Vaillancourt — who did not explicitly state why he was dismissing some charges and finding Duffy not guilty on others — described the senator as a “credible witness” and cast doubt on the Crown’s allegations.
“This case provided me with ample opportunity to assess the credibility of Sen. Duffy,” he said. “He was on the stand for many hours; at the end of the day I find that Sen. Duffy is an overall credible witness.”
He then proceeded to systematically dismantle the Crown’s allegation against the embattled senator, declaring him to have shown no criminal or “sinister” intent — save perhaps for some opportunism — in filing his expense claims.
“Sen.Duffy believed reasonably … that all of the travel encompassed by counts three to 20 were properly expensed as parliamentary functions.”
Though he discussed them, Vaillancourt did not explicitly deliver a decision on counts 17 and 18.
He also paused midway through his decision for a lunch break before tackling the second half of the charge sheet — more perilous territory for Duffy, including two bribery charges that each carry a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison.
As he dismissed the charges related to Duffy’s travel claims, Vaillancourt said at one point that “the Crown has not established the guilt of the accused beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Vaillancourt said Duffy “did not ignore the gathering storm around his appointment,” but rather “sought out reassurance about those issues and was assured that he has no valid concerns.”
He said Duffy “honestly and reasonably believed and relied on the advice he received regarding his appointment and his primary residence, and he acted upon it.”
It’s the long-awaited finale to a stubborn political drama that dispatched Stephen Harper’s chief of staff, staggered the former prime minister’s re-election campaign, embarrassed and diminished the Senate and laid bare the inner workings of a notoriously guarded and secretive government.
Duffy was charged in July 2014 with 31 counts of fraud, breach of trust and bribery, the latter being the most serious of all the charges. He has pleaded not guilty to all of them.
Vaillancourt said despite the “dalliance with definitions” that Duffy’s lawyer and the Crown played over the term “primary residence,” no such definition exists in the Senate rules that guide spending decisions.
“After reviewing the submissions and the facts in this case, I am not satisfied that the Crown has proven the guilt of Sen. Duffy in relation to alleged fraudulent residency declarations, and their expense claims in connection thereto, beyond a reasonable a doubt.”
He said he did not find the senator was engaged in “sinister motive or design” in using pre-signed blank travel forms, although he added doing so probably wasn’t a good idea.
The bribery charge is the result of then-chief of staff Nigel Wright’s decision to personally pay the $90,000 in living expenses Duffy claimed by declaring his long-time home in an Ottawa suburb was actually a secondary residence.
The remaining 30 fraud and breach of trust charges relate to Senate money the Crown alleged Duffy either received for trips that had nothing to do with Senate work or that he funnelled through a friend’s company to cover costs the Senate wouldn’t pay for.
The implications of the long-running Duffy saga are perhaps best summed up in the senator’s own words to the upper chamber in 2013 when he delivered a scathing rebuttal of the allegations swirling around him.
“This,” Duffy thundered, “is a case for the history books.”
It all began in 2012, when the auditor general issued a report that recommended taking steps to ensure members of the upper chamber were submitting enough proof their expense claims were for legitimate parliamentary business.
Questions about Duffy’s own claims — including whether he was a legitimate resident of P.E.I., the province he’d been appointed in 2008 to represent — began later that year. It was the first in a long chain of events that would, among other things, eventually force the departure of Nigel Wright, then the prime minister’s chief of staff.
The trial exposed the inner workings of a secretive Prime Minister’s Office and the Conservative party machine, shaped the early narrative of last year’s fateful election campaign and even led to at least one high profile Conservative publicly turning his back on the party.
Benjamin Perrin, a former legal adviser to the Prime Minister’s Office who became caught up in the who-knew-what-when storyline, admitted in the final days of the campaign that the Conservatives had lost “the moral authority” to govern.
Of course, Harper lost the election. But not everyone saw the Duffy controversy as an indictment of the party or the Conservative government.
“In my riding, it was about Mr. Duffy and the senators who were singled out, it was not about the Senate,” said Conservative MP Lisa Raitt, who represents the Ontario riding of Milton.
But the ensuing ethics and spending scandal did force a national conversation about the need for Senate reform — an issue Harper referred to the Supreme Court, only to be shut down by a high court that insisted constitutional amendments would be unavoidable.
“As interesting as those issues may be, they are not the subject matter before this court,” Vaillancourt said Thursday.
For his part, Duffy held his tongue throughout the trial, save the eight days that he spent on the witness stand. The trial began last April as the hottest ticket in Ottawa, a political cause celebre that promised to lay bare the inner workings of one of the most secretive, media-wary governments in recent history.
But when the Oct. 19 election upended the status quo on Parliament Hill, the public and media interest in the trial all but evaporated as the Harper era was relegated to the annals of history.
As leader of the official Opposition, Tom Mulcair relentlessly grilled the Tories during the hottest days of the Duffy scandal, prompting former prime minister Brian Mulroney to call him the best Opposition leader since John Diefenbaker.
The case will serve as a reminder to what happens when Conservatives are in power, said Mulcair, but it also exposed real faults with the Senate.
“Canadians have been able to see since the beginning of the Duffy affair that everything to do with the Senate — from the appointment process through their administration — that they are unaccountable, and it is a grossly undemocratic institution,” he said.
It may yet allow Duffy to take up his Senate seat once again.
If acquitted, he can return as soon as the upper chamber convenes again. If he’s found guilty, he will remain on a leave of absence without pay until sentencing. If his sentence is anything other than a complete discharge, he’d be suspended until his appeals conclude.
— With files from Jordan Press