OTTAWA — The Conservatives' plan to take a tough stand against three misbehaving senators started to crack the moment Mike Duffy arrived on Parliament Hill on Tuesday.
Under the cover of Parliamentary immunity, Duffy laid out a "monstrous political scheme" that involved months of threats, backroom deals and personal vendettas that went right to the very top. In a 15-minute speech, Duffy sent the Prime Minister’s Office into the kind of damage control rarely seen in Stephen Harper's seven years in power.
As the Tories head into their annual convention this weekend, observers wonder whether Harper can recover from a disastrous strategy that in one fell swoop exposed party rifts, strengthened the opposition and raised further doubts about whether the prime minister lied.
A vote is expected this week on whether or not to suspend Duffy, along with Senators Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau, without pay until the next election in 2015. The prime minister wants them out. However the Leader of the Government in the Senate, Claude Carignan, says he’s ready to make compromises. The Conservative Senate caucus is expected to meet Monday before the upper chamber resumes its deliberations in the afternoon.
Late last week the Tory leadership was clearly feeling the blowback from their suspension strategy, as the Conservative Leader in the Senate, Claude Carignan, started offering deals. He said he told Brazeau: "Do something. Propose something. Say you're sorry. Propose to reduce your sanction."
"Help me, help you," Carignan said he told the 38-year-old father of four.
Brazeau was suspended from the Senate in February after domestic assault charges were laid against him, and had been thrown out of the Conservative caucus. More recently, former colleagues suggested he had a troubled personal life to the press. He did not trust Carignan.
The Quebec senator described the intervention as a "backroom deal" to his colleagues on the Senate floor. Brazeau maintains his expenses are in order, and tabled documentation that suggests Senate staff told his office he could rent an apartment in Ottawa and expense the charges even during months the Senate did not sit.
Carignan said Friday he still wants a suspension without pay but he is willing to be flexible on the length of the ban. "Is it six months, 10 months, a year, a year-and-a-half?"
"We are trying to find a consensus to have a sanction that is appropriate," he said. "Suspension with pay is not a suspension, it's a gift."
A government source said Wallin had also been offered leniency if she apologizes. The government wanted her, like Brazeau, to propose a compromise — a punishment for their alleged crimes.
The source said Wallin's second speech in the chamber Friday, where she stayed away from accusing her colleagues of "trumped-up charges" and described "catfights" with other senators, was reflective of ongoing discussions.
"She understood the message," the source said. "Her first intervention, she had not scored any points. The second intervention, where she explained her version of the facts, she scored more points towards a reduced sanction."
However her lawyer, Terrence O'Sullivan, told HuffPost in an email that he and Wallin had no information on a possible deal.
"Those who have come to the chamber and made their cases to reduce (their sentences) have been Wallin and Brazeau," Carignan said.
For the man who brought everything closer to Harper's doorstep, however, there will be no mercy. No one has contacted Duffy, no deals have been offered.
Carignan said Duffy hadn't spoken to the facts against him. Duffy was more interested in settling scores, the Conservative Senate leader suggested.
"He rather put the emphasis on other things," he said. "It's not with intimidation that he is going to benefit."
For the Conservatives, it wasn't supposed to be like this.
The fallout from a supposedly top-secret payment of $90,000 from Harper’s former chief of staff Nigel Wright to Duffy and the subsequent alleged PMO involvement in a third-party audit of the PEI senator’s expenses had consumed most of the questioning in the House of Commons before the summer break.
In July, court documents showed Wright had told the RCMP that three people in PMO, including Harper's legal counsel, knew about the payment. He said Senator Irving Gerstein, the chair of the Conservative Fund of Canada, was also aware and that the Tories had initially sought to dig into their own funds to repay Duffy's living expenses.
The prime minister shuffled his cabinet and prorogued Parliament hoping for a fresh start. A new consumer-friendly Speech From the Throne and the announcement of a major free trade deal with Europe were supposed to turn public attention away from the Senate scandal.
Carignan, new to the job, had tried to please his boss by introducing motions to suspend the three senators. It was a move designed to send a strong signal about how the Tories were getting tough on the expenses scandal, just in time for the prime minister to deliver a key speech for the party faithful at the Conservatives’ convention. It backfired.
Under the threat of losing his reputation, his livelihood and health benefits, Duffy turned around and tied the prime minister closer to the scandal, said Allan Tupper, head of UBC's political science department.
"It knocked the Conservatives off their agenda," Tupper said.
"It really changed the parameters of the debates, it showed the complexity. It raised questions in a very direct way of the prime minister's involvement, and what was going on and the coercion of senators."
Some Conservative MPs told HuffPost they were no longer sure whose version of the story to believe. Many felt the Senate expense scandal had been mishandled from the beginning.
Alberta MP Brent Rathgeber, who quit the Conservative caucus in June angry about the government's behaviour, said at the time that he believed Harper's version of events. Now, he's not so sure.
"I don’t know what to believe anymore — (Tuesday)'s explosive speech created more questions than answers," he wrote in an email.
Many Conservatives in caucus, however, felt Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau had to be punished. They had embarrassed the party and disgraced Parliamentarians.
"There needs to be consequences," one MP said. "The country wants accountability."
The prime minister repeated that position during an interview with Toronto radio show host John Tory on Friday, as he did a rare round of radio interviews in the wake of the suspension controversy.
Harper told Newstalk 1010 that Canadians and the majority of the Senate caucus believe there had been enough studies on Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau's expenses and now they needed to be removed — without pay.
"It's beyond a shadow of a doubt that these senators, in some cases, have collected literally up to six figures worth of ineligible expenses, did so willingly and over a long period of time," Harper said.
If you did that at work, your boss wouldn't wait for you to be convicted of a crime — he would fire you, the prime minister suggested.
As Harper doubled down on suspending the senators, Carignan was sending signals that he was ready to compromise.
The public reaction had been hugely positive when Carignan introduced the suspension motions on Oct. 18. People wrote emails thanking him for his actions.
Seven days later, the mood of the country appeared to have changed.
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Conservative Senator Hugh Segal opposed the motions. He compared them to actions of a third world dictatorship. He said he received 500 emails in two days, 25 to 1 in support of giving the three senators a fair hearing and due process before casting them off.
"One major general said he wasn't in the armed forces for 39 years to have a country where due process doesn't matter," Segal said.
"I think a lot of that is swelling up and I think it's coming from the Tory base... Public opinion is moving."
When Liberal senators first suggested giving Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau a forum to speak in their defense, at least one Grit MP raised concerns privately that their caucus was about to take a principled but politically stupid position.
Senator James Cowan, the Liberal Leader in the Senate, stressed in a speech Tuesday that he wasn't defending the Harper appointees. (Mac Harb, the Liberal senator who was asked to pay back $231,649 in ineligible housing expenses resigned from the Senate in August in order to preserve his pension).
"I have absolutely no sympathy for these three senators," Cowan said.
"In my opinion, they breached our very clear rules and claimed money to which they were not entitled… But, colleagues, we have due process in this country. We have fundamental principles that allow a person the opportunity to answer charges such as these."
Cowan didn't want the Liberals to be part of a "cover-up," he said. He noted procedural problems, such as the fact Duffy now claimed to be instructed by the PMO not to speak out during the investigation of his expenses. A report on Wallin's expenses had not been tabled in the Senate and she had not had an opportunity to present her case with her lawyer. And Brazeau had not been given a chance to speak in his own defence.
Many senators, both Liberal and Conservative, knew first-hand that the rules of the Senate on travel and living expenses were vague. Several wondered whether their own expenses, now under review by the Auditor General, would be questioned. And if they too could be turfed out without pay before any potential criminal charges were laid.
"We are creating precedent that could implicate several other senators in the future in the next few weeks, if these motions move forth, in their present state," Conservative Senator Don Meredith told HuffPost.
The Senate rules allow for a suspension without pay if a senator is convicted of a serious crime and sentenced to more than two years in prison.
Some senators felt Carignan's motions set a dangerous precedent where the Senate majority could manufacture any excuse to kick out a senator.
"A majority in the chamber can throw anybody out — don't like their politics, don't like their ancestry, don't like their view. What's that about?" Segal said.
In the Senate, Segal told his colleagues the motions were "a serious violation of the tradition of the presumption of innocence in any circumstance."
Don Plett, a former Conservative Party president, pleaded for some second sober thought on Thursday. The past week in the Senate had been the hardest of his political career, he said.
"I would like to always be on the same side as the prime minister but the fact of the matter is is that Conservatives are independent-minded people and independent-thinking people," he said.
Conservatives may have thought the public was demanding stiff action but the Tory base believes in due process, he said.
"There are certainly people who are demanding their heads on a spike but not necessarily the (Conservative) base," Plett told HuffPost. "They are individuals who are ill-informed."
Plett hopes for a compromise. He mused it might be best for the issue to remain unresolved until after the Conservatives' convention in Calgary later in the week, so everyone could hold out hope that their side would win.
"The Tory base is not this monolithic, grass-chewing, ball-cap-wearing, pick-up truck (crowd)," Segal told HuffPost.
"A lot of those people are actually very bright. And they expect fairness even for people who they think may have misspent public funds. But they don't think they should be dropped off the top of a building without having their day in court."
Conservative MP Peter Goldring is also urging Senators to think things through. Goldring had his own trouble with the law when he was charged with refusing a breathalyzer test before being cleared of wrongdoing this year.
"It's a pretty shoddy way to treat people and it's not given them their due diligence on their rights to be presumed innocent until proven guilty," he said.
Former Tory cabinet minister Peter Kent also voiced his opposition to the suspension motions. He says he believes the Senate should wait for the results of the police investigation, iPolitics reported Monday.
Sources have pegged the number of Conservative senators willing to support the Liberals between four and eight.
Meredith, the senator who is also a reverend, said he planned to vote against the "premature" motions.
"Individuals need to be given the opportunity to present their case," he said. "And if individuals have made restitution, and apologies are made, then we move forward."
The Senate’'s administration shared part of the blame, he added. "If I present a piece of documentation that doesn't meet the standards, who allows that to go through?"
"Anyone can come tomorrow and accuse anyone of us. That is a dangerous precedent that we are embarking upon."
Meredith said he knew the three would be sanctioned but he hoped the punishment would be a shorter suspension with pay, which would allow them to return to the Senate and continue their work.
"Justice and forgiveness and repentance and second chances, I truly believe in those things," he told HuffPost.
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