Opinion

Harper's Horrible Year, 2.0

Why Duffy's 31 charges and pending trial are the PM's recurring nightmare.

By Tasha Kheiriddin 18 Jul 2014 | iPolitics

Tasha Kheiriddin is a political writer and broadcaster who frequently comments in both English and French. She served in the Mike Harris government, was Ontario director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, co-wrote the 2005 bestseller, Rescuing Canada's Right: Blueprint for a Conservative Revolution and was director for Quebec of the Fraser Institute. This story was first published in iPolitics.

Seven counts of fraud over $5,000. Seven counts of fraud under $5,000. Fifteen counts of breach of trust. One count of bribery of a judicial officer. One count of fraud on the government.

In all, the RCMP has charged disgraced Senator Mike Duffy with 31 offenses in four parts: ineligible expense claims unrelated to Senate business; awarding of consulting contracts for personal gain; inappropriate living expenses totalling $90,000; and the circumstances in which the senator received a $90,000 payment from Prime Minister Stephen Harper's former chief of staff, Nigel Wright.

For the federal Conservatives, the timing could not be worse. Duffy's first court appearance is set for September 16. One day earlier, the House of Commons will have reconvened for the autumn session of Parliament. While hearing of the case will take months, maybe years, fall 2014 will still unfold like a rerun of fall 2013, with NDP leader Thomas Mulcair donning his prosecutor's hat and asking the prime minister every day what he knew or didn't know about the $90,000 cheque Duffy accepted from Nigel Wright.

Harper under oath?

The government will fall back on the "we can't comment on a criminal matter before the courts" response -- the line already being trotted out today by PMO communications director Jason MacDonald -- but that won't keep the Opposition quiet. Every QP between now and the next general election will offer them another opportunity to remind Canadians of the case and rehash speculation about Harper's involvement. This strategy may not bump up the NDP at the polls (it didn't last year), but it won't help the Conservatives either. If polls are any indication, the more their stock falls on this issue, the more the Liberals stand to benefit.

Then there's the witness list. The expectation is that the prosecution will call Wright. The bigger question is -- will the defence call Harper? The optics of a sitting prime minister testifying about alleged fraud involving a member of his own office, even if that person is not the one being charged, is untenable. If anything could prompt the PM's exit before the next election in Oct. 2015, it's this possibility -- or any testimony to the effect that Harper knew about the cheque and lied about it to Parliament and the Canadian public.

With the clock ticking down, Harper must now make some quick decisions about his future, and whether he can ride out whatever storms Duffy's trial promises to bring.

Duffy: fraudster or fall guy?

At the same time, there are some bright spots for the government. First, there is the huge number of charges. The sheer volume has the effect of reducing the most problematic offences -- those involving Wright's $90,000 cheque and speculation about the PM's involvement -- to just a few among many. They're also in the last group of charges; if they're tried in order, they will be preceded by a litany of allegations about bad behaviour on Duffy's part.

By the time Wright takes the stand, the prosecution will already have painted a picture of Duffy as an inveterate scoundrel -- shredding his credibility, thereby burnishing the credibility of anybody testifying against him. It will make Wright appear the victim of a practiced fraudster, instead of a political operative trying to buy his way out of a problem.

Also this fall, Auditor General Michael Ferguson is slated to deliver his Senate expense audit. The Tories are probably fervently hoping that he finds lots of senators behaving badly, especially across the aisle. Will the RCMP charge all of them? Why, they might just shut the whole place down! If half the Senate were up on charges, it could hardly be considered a place of sober second thought. Again, the AG's probe will put focus will be on senators defrauding taxpayers, not the $90,000 cheque which Wright said was intended to save taxpayers' money by reimbursing Duffy's false expense claims.

Prior to the charges being made public, Duffy's lawyer Donald Bayne issued a statement: "We are confident that when the full story is told, as it will be, and shown to be supported by many forms of evidence, it will be clear that Sen. Duffy is innocent of any criminal wrong-doing... There is much that is offensive here. But the evidence will show that it did not emanate from Sen. Duffy."

Now, that evidence will finally be brought forward, and Canadians will be able to judge for themselves. Let the trial begin.  [Tyee]

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