Ontario Justice Charles Vaillancourt condemned “the mind-boggling and shocking” conduct of the Prime Minister’s Office under Stephen Harper as he ruled that Senator Mike Duffy was not guilty of all 31 charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery.
The judge issued a 308-page decision in which he called Mr. Duffy a “credible witness” whose conduct was “reasonable and honest” and dismissed every charge related to the senator’s residency, travel claims, expenses and a $90,172 cheque from Mr. Harper’s former chief of staff, Nigel Wright.
It was the actions of Mr. Wright and other top Harper lieutenants in pushing Mr. Duffy to pretend he had repaid questionable expenses out of his own pocket that drew the judge’s harshest criticism.
“I find based on all of the evidence that Senator Duffy was forced into accepting Nigel Wright’s funds so that the government could rid itself of an embarrassing political fiasco that just was not going away,” Justice Vaillancourt said.
At every step of this political drama, Mr. Duffy had resisted “threats and pressures” from the PMO and the Conservative Senate leadership and was “dragged kicking and screaming” to repay living expenses he believed he was legally entitled to collect.
“The political, covert and relentless, unfolding of events is mind-boggling and shocking,” Justice Vaillancourt told the court as Mr. Duffy and his wife, Heather, sat stone-faced. “The precision and planning of the exercise would make any military commander proud.”
He recounted how Mr. Wright treated the Senate leadership as “mere pawns on a chessboard … meekly acquiescing” to his orders, including an attempt to influence an independent Senate expense audit.
“Could Hollywood match such creativity?” the judge asked. “However, in the context of a democratic society, the plotting revealed in the e-mails can only be described as unacceptable.”
Mr. Wright said he would not comment on the ruling. Mr. Harper’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
Retired senator Marjory LeBreton, who was the Conservative Senate leader during this period, told The Globe and Mail she hoped Canadians won’t find fault with Mr. Harper.
“The Prime Minister’s Office is a big office and many excellent people worked in the Prime Minister’s Office and this should not be a broad-brush condemnation of the PMO or indeed the prime minister himself because of the actions of a few,” she said.
Asked to name those she was talking about, Ms. LeBreton declined and said, “I think it’s obvious.”
Mr. Duffy, a well-known broadcaster before Mr. Harper named him to the Senate in 2009, left the courthouse without uttering a word. His high-profile criminal lawyer, Donald Bayne, called the verdict a “resounding acquittal.”
“I would say Senator Duffy has been subjected in the last two and a half to three years to more public humiliation than probably any other Canadian in history,” Mr. Bayne said as he criticized the Senate for suspending Mr. Duffy without pay before he had his day in court. “We can’t rush to judgment. Political figures, public figures are also entitled to due process.”
The Senate issued a statement saying the acquittal of Senator Duffy means he can return to the Red Chamber in “full standing with full salary and office resources.”
Throughout his judgment, Justice Vaillancourt was highly critical of Crown attorneys Mark Holmes and Jason Neubauer for not addressing the “majority of charges” during their cross examination of Mr. Duffy.
“The end result of the lack of cross-examination is that much of Senator Duffy’s testimony is left unchallenged,” the judge said.
He also noted the prosecutors didn’t summon Conservative Senator David Tkachuk, whom Mr. Duffy testified was the Senate “guru” who told him to claim the living expenses and that they were entirely within the rules.
In his final summation, the judge noted the Crown had alleged “Senator Duffy’s actions were driven by deceit, manipulations and carried out in a clandestine manner,” but he added: “I find that if one were to substitute the PMO, Nigel Wright and others for Senator Duffy in the aforementioned sentence that you would have a more accurate statement.”
Justice Vaillancourt admitted to a “certain uncomfortableness” over some of the expenses filed by Mr. Duffy, such the hiring a personal trainer as an adviser of heath issues, but he said it did not amount to “criminal conduct beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The judge said he found no “sinister motive” in Mr. Duffy’s travel claims and said his expenses were in accordance with Senate rules as they existed at the time.
He said there was no mandatory training on Senate policies and “senators were unreasonably left to their own devices.”
Mr. Duffy’s trial centred on the idea of primary residence, and the first two charges had to do with the PEI senator’s expense claims for his Ottawa home.
The judge agreed with Mr. Duffy’s lawyer that those rules were unclear and that the senator sought advice from others in the Red Chamber about what he was entitled to claim.
“I am not satisfied that the Crown has proven the guilt of Senator Duffy in relation to alleged fraudulent residency declarations and expense claims,” Justice Vaillancourt said.
The judge said Mr. Duffy had a lifelong connection to Prince Edward Island and there were no clear rules surrounding primary residency in the Senate.
He also cleared Mr. Duffy on eight charges relating to Senate contracts he issued through his friend Gerald Donohue’s company.
That money was used for services such as paying a volunteer, a makeup artist and a fitness consultant. The judge said he would have preferred a formal contract in some instances but ruled the services were used to carry out Senate duties and “it was not intended as a means to bilk Senate Finance out of their resources.”
With a report from Steven Chase
According to legal experts, the judge used the terms “dismissed” and “not guilty” in his verdict interchangeably and for all intents and purposes the terms mean the same thing.
1. Breach of trust related to Mike Duffy’s expense claims and residency declarations. After declaring that his primary residence was a non-winterized cottage in PEI, Mr. Duffy was able to receive funds from the Senate to live in his long-time home in Ottawa as he conducted his Senate duties.
2. Fraud related to the expense claims.
3. Fraud related to a 2009 trip to the Peterborough area to attend political fundraisers with Conservative colleagues.
4. Breach of trust related to the 2009 trip.
5. Fraud related to a 2009 trip to British Columbia to participate in partisan events with Conservative colleagues.
6. Breach of trust related to the 2009 trip.
7. Fraud related to a 2009 trip to British Columbia after being invited to, but not attending, the Saanich Fair. Mr. Duffy spent time with his family during the trip.
8. Breach of trust related to the 2009 trip.
9. Fraud related to a 2010 trip to Peterborough “to make arrangements” to buy a puppy at a dog show.
10. Breach of trust related to the 2010 trip.
11. Fraud related to a 2010 trip to British Columbia to raise money for a shelter for homeless veterans, and be present for the birth of his grandchild.
12. Breach of trust related to the 2010 trip.
13. Fraud related to a 2011-12 trip to British Columbia in which Mr. Duffy celebrated New Year’s Day with his family, and held a lunch meeting with an MP at the Royal Vancouver Yacht Club.
14. Breach of trust related to the 2011-12 trip.
15. Fraud related to a 2012 trip from PEI to Ottawa that allowed Mr. Duffy’s wife to attend a medical appointment. Mr. Duffy did an interview with Sun TV during his time in Ottawa.
16. Breach of trust related to the 2012 trip.
17. Fraud related to a 2012 trip from Charlottetown to Ottawa, charged to the Senate, to give a paid speech to the Building Owners and Managers Association of Ottawa.
18. Breach of trust related to the 2012 trip.
19. Fraud related to travel claims between 2009 and 2012, paid by the Senate, to attend various funerals of friends and acquaintances.
20. Breach of trust related to the trips.
21. Fraud related to consulting contracts with Gerald Donohue, a long-time friend who managed some of Mr. Duffy’s Senate budget.
22. Breach of trust related to the contracts.
23. Fraud related to a payment made through Mr. Donohue to Ashley Cain, a former volunteer in Mr. Duffy’s office who received $500 as a gift.
24. Breach of trust related to the payment.
25. Fraud related to a payment made through Mr. Donohue to Jacqueline Lambert, a makeup artist who received $300 to work at an event with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mr. Duffy in 2010.
26: Breach of trust related to the payment.
27. Fraud related to payments of more than $10,000 made through Mr. Donohue to Mike Croskery, a personal trainer who acted as a consultant on fitness issues to Mr. Duffy, and supervised Mr. Duffy’s training regime.
28. Breach of trust related to the payments.
29. Bribery related to a 2013 payment of $90,000 that Mr. Duffy received from Nigel Wright – the chief of staff in the Prime Minister’s Office at the time – to reimburse his controversial expenses and put an end to the controversy.
30. Fraud related to the $90,000 payment.
31. Breach of trust related to the $90,000 payment.
ROBERT FIFE AND LAURA STONE
Ottawa — The Globe and Mail
Published Thursday, Apr. 21, 2016 11:25AM EDT
Last updated Friday, Apr. 22, 2016 7:59AM EDT