OTTAWA - Embattled Conservative Sen. Mike Duffy says he'll pay back a housing allowance to which he admits he wasn't entitled — a mistake he blamed Friday on vague and confusing Senate paperwork.
After weeks of dodging pointed questions about his expenses, the former Parliament Hill journalist unexpectedly turned up on network television to deliver a stunning mea culpa: it was all, he said, the result of an innocent slip of the pen.
"The Senate rules on housing allowances aren't clear, and the forms are confusing," Duffy said in a statement late Friday.
"I filled out the Senate forms in good faith and believed I was in compliance with the rules. Now it turns out I may have been mistaken."
Duffy is being audited along with fellow senators Pamela Wallin, Mac Harb and Patrick Brazeau following questions about their housing expense claims.
Duffy in particular has faced questions about $33,000 in living allowances he has claimed since 2010. The allowance is intended to compensate senators for the expense of maintaining a secondary residence in the national capital.
The questions swirling around Duffy — focused on whether his house in the Ottawa area is a secondary residence or is, in fact, his primary home — present a larger issue: whether he's even qualified to represent P.E.I. in the Senate.
The Constitution requires senators to reside in the provinces they are appointed to represent. Duffy has insisted his primary residence is indeed his cottage in Cavendish, P.E.I., and that he's entitled to compensation for his home in Kanata, a suburb on the outskirts of Ottawa.
The allowance will nonetheless be paid back, Duffy said.
"Rather than let this issue drag on, my wife and I have decided that the allowance associated with my house in Ottawa will be repaid."
Asked Friday about Duffy's apparent mea culpa, Sen. Marjory LeBreton, the government leader in the Senate, would only say that the audit would get to the bottom of the controversy.
"We have committed to ensuring that all expenses are appropriate, that the rules governing expenses are appropriate and to report back to the public on these matters," LeBreton said.
"Sen. Duffy maintains a residence in Prince Edward Island and has deep ties to the province."
NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus said Duffy's repayment does not put an end to the matter.
"How could it be that you can fill out forms to collect money you're not entitled to and then you have to get caught, you have to get hounded to pay it back, and then you can just shrug and say, 'Catch me the next time.' That's not good enough," Angus said.
"If an ordinary citizen did that, they'd be in jail."
Angus noted that the federal government is sending public servants door to door in a bid to catch employment insurance cheaters.
"If it's good enough to go after EI claimants, if it's good enough go after tax cheats, then they should be going after Senate cheats," he said, adding that the police should be called in.
Duffy blamed a vague form, which he said asks senators to list their primary residence in the province they represent, for his mistake in collecting the housing allowance.
Angus scoffed at Duffy's complaints about the Senate forms, noting that parliamentarians must produce expense receipts every month in order to claim a housing allowance for the time they spend in Ottawa.
"Mr. Duffy lives in Kanata. He's claiming a housing allowance that is intended for senators who actually live in the province they represent. I don't know how much clearer you could be."
Sen. James Cowan, Liberal leader in the Senate, was unavailable for comment. But a spokesman, Marc Roy, said Duffy's repayment does not put an end to two processes put in place to investigate residency and housing expense claims.
Roy noted that an external auditor is examining the housing claims of Duffy, Harb and Brazeau and that the findings of those audits is supposed to be made public.
As well, the Senate's internal economy committee has asked all senators to produce documents proving where they reside and has sought legal advice to clarify what is meant by the constitutional requirement that a senator must reside in the province he or she represents.
The Constitution does not specify that senators' primary residences must be in their home provinces. Nor does it spell out any standards for determining residency, such as the province in which a senator votes, pays income taxes or holds a driver's licence.
Earlier this week, Duffy said he rents a home in Charlottetown during the winter — in addition to his house in Cavendish — so he can have quicker access to care in case of a medical emergency.
He said Canadians know him as an "honest man'' who wouldn't cheat on his expenses.
In his statement Friday, he took pains to sing P.E.I.'s praises and to insist he's qualified to represent the province in the Senate.
"I was born here, I was raised here, I own a house here, I pay property taxes here, and most important, my heart is here," he said.
"I also started my career here, and took my Island sensibilities along when I was covering politics in Ottawa. Being a senator has allowed me to do a lot of good for P.E.I. communities. And there is a lot more to be done."