OTTAWA - The Conservative government is scrambling to figure out if the suspensions of three of its own senators actually means they're entirely off the public payroll, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper claims.
Tuesday's suspensions of Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau for allegedly fraudulent expense claims are without precedent and the government still hasn't figured out all the ramifications.
Among the lingering questions: Is Duffy eligible for a disability allowance? Will the trio's time in political purgatory — as much as two years — count toward the six years of service needed to be eligible for a generous parliamentary pension?
Good questions — and it's up to the Senate to answer them, said Treasury Board President Tony Clement, the chief guardian of the public purse.
"You're asking very legitimate questions and there should be answers to those questions," Clement said Wednesday, stressing that the Senate runs its own internal affairs.
"I honestly don't know the answer to that. I know that there's a legal opinion that is being sought."
Claude Carignan, government leader in the Senate, called the questions "technicalities" that will be sorted out by the chamber's administration.
The intention of the suspension motions passed on Tuesday was to suspend Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau "without pay, without any benefits ... including (the) pension plan," he said. While Senate officials will apply "the spirit and the letter" of those motions, he allowed that there might be some legal impediments.
"It's the first time in 150 years that we have this type of suspension. It could have perhaps little technical problems so we will see what the administration (does), if they have technical problems," Carignan said.
"But all that we can do to suspend the benefits and the salary, within the parameters of the law, we will do it."
In fact, the three are still entitled to health, dental and life insurance benefits — a provision added by Carignan last week to make the suspensions more palatable to some of his Conservative colleagues.
Tory Sen. Don Meredith, who abstained from Tuesday's vote, said he hopes the suspensions will not adversely impact his three former colleagues' pension eligibility.
"I think we need to begin to support our colleagues as they're on suspension, especially their economic and social state, especially Sen. Brazeau," Meredith said, pointing out that Brazeau has young children, including one with a disability.
Wallin's lawyer, Terrence O'Sullivan, told Global News that his client will consider legal action if the Senate attempts to tamper with her pension eligibility.
Liberal Senate leader James Cowan said the confusion is further evidence that the government rushed through the suspensions to solve a political problem, without giving any thought to the possible consequences.
"It says that they've been making this whole process up as they go along."
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, however — an outspoken champion of abolishing the Senate entirely — said he "couldn't care less" about the pension and disability allowance questions.
"You're asking me to comment on the flowers in the tapestry when we want to roll up the red carpet," he shrugged.
Another question lingers: how will the Senate collect reimbursement from Brazeau for $48,000 in disallowed living expenses if he's no longer collecting a salary?
Brazeau has steadfastly insisted he did nothing wrong and has refused to repay the money. In July, the chamber began garnisheeing 20 per cent of his Senate paycheque. Now, it's unclear how — or even if — the Senate will get any more money out of him.
"He may have other income ... I just have no idea," Cowan said.
Wallin has voluntarily repaid almost $150,000 in disallowed travel expenses. Duffy's $90,000 in ineligible living expenses were repaid last winter by Nigel Wright, Harper's chief of staff at the time.
As of Tuesday's vote, the three are not allowed to sit in the Senate, keep their offices, employ staff or conduct any Senate work.
Their suspensions are for the duration of the parliamentary sitting, which could continue until 2015 — the same year in which Wallin, Duffy and Brazeau, all appointed in early 2009, would ordinarily have become eligible for a pension.
Gregory Thomas, federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers' Association, said "there's nothing in the legislation" to suggest the suspensions will impact the trio's pension eligibility, provided they continue to make contributions.
Duffy, the eldest of the three at 67, would be immediately eligible in 2015 for an annual pension of $58,264, according to the federation.
"There's nothing in the parliamentary pension legislation that contemplates somebody being suspended," Thomas said. The law deals only with those members who are expelled, he added.
"All it says is that members have to contribute their share of the plan."
Duffy — who has a heart condition and announced he was taking medical leave just as debate on his proposed suspension began several weeks ago — could potentially benefit even more, Thomas said.
Under the Parliament of Canada Act, a senator who is 65 or older and incapacitated by a proven medical condition can receive a disability allowance equal to 70 per cent of his or her annual salary — $94,640 per year. The allowance is paid until the senator reaches 75, the age of mandatory retirement from the Senate.
Whether that holds true for a senator who's been suspended without pay is unclear. But Thomas said he suspects Duffy plans to fight for the allowance, and might make a fuss if the government tries to deny it.
"I don't think Sen. Duffy cares whether he causes the Senate majority any inconvenience or not."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, question period, Feb. 13
"In terms of Sen. Wallin, I have looked at the numbers. Her travel costs are comparable to any parliamentarian travelling from that particular area of the country over that period of time. For instance, last year Sen. Wallin spent almost half of her time in the province she represents in the Senate. The costs are to travel to and from that province, as any similar parliamentarian would do."
Wallin speaking Wednesday in her own defence
"By throwing a member of this Senate under the bus, finding her guilty without a fair hearing such as any other Canadian could expect — a right guaranteed us by the charter — to proceed without the evidence having been adduced and considered on which the charge in the motion is based, is a fundamental affront to Canadian democracy and makes a mockery of this chamber. This charade is supposedly about preserving the reputation of this place, but the real intent is to remove a perceived liability — namely, me."
Harper on Wallin's expenses, question period, Feb. 14
"The senator and all other senators and members of the House are fully prepared and committed to have an examination of expenses to ensure that they are appropriate. That is the commitment the government has made in both chambers, a commitment we will keep."
Harper in question period on May 28 on when he learned that former chief of staff Nigel Wright personally wrote a $90,000 cheque to cover Sen. Mike Duffy's expenses
"Mr. Speaker, I have been very clear on this question. This matter came to my attention two weeks ago, after speculation appeared in the media. On Wednesday, May 15, I was told about it. At that very moment, I demanded that my office ensure that the public was informed, and it was informed appropriately."
Duffy in the Senate on Oct. 22
"I made one last effort. I said: 'I don't believe I owe anything, and besides which, I don't have $90,000.' 'Don't worry,' Nigel said. 'I'll write the cheque.'"
Harper in question period, May 28
"As I have said repeatedly, my first knowledge of this was on the date and at the time indicated. Prior to that point in time, it was my understanding that Mr. Duffy had paid back his own expenses."
Harper in question period, May 28
"If the leader of the NDP is suggesting I had any information to the contrary from Mr. Wright prior to this, that is completely false. I learned of this on May 15 and immediately made this information public, as I have said many times."
Harper in question period, June 4
"Mr. Speaker, that information was already made public on Feb. 13, and I have been very clear about this. Mr. Duffy approached me after a caucus meeting to discuss this matter. From the beginning, my position has been clear: any inappropriate expenses should be refunded to taxpayers by the senators concerned."
Duffy in his Oct. 22 Senate speech
"I've violated no laws, I've followed the rules."
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair in question period June 4
"Mr. Speaker, why then did the Prime Minister, last week, deny instructing any members of his personnel to settle the Mike Duffy matter when he gave that order with that personnel present in the room at a caucus meeting in February of this year?"
Harper, in reply to Mulcair in question period June 4
"Mr. Speaker, it was my view from the beginning that any inappropriate expenses by any senator should be repaid by the senator, not by somebody else. That was very clear. Those are the facts obviously before us. As I say, my statements on this matter have been very clear and very consistent."
Harper in question period June 5 explaining his meeting with Duffy
"Mr. Duffy was seeking clarification on remarks I had made to this effect in caucus and I was adamant that any inappropriate expenses had to be reimbursed by him."
Duffy in the Senate Oct. 22
"So after caucus on Feb. 13 of this year, I met the prime minister and Nigel Wright, just the three of us. I said that despite the smear in the papers, I had not broken the rules, but the prime minister wasn't interested in explanations or the truth. It's not about what you did; it's about the perception of what you did that has been created in the media."
Harper in question period Oct. 23, referring to Duffy's account of the Feb. 13 meeting
"No, Mr. Speaker I absolutely did not say that."
Duffy to the Senate on Oct. 22
"I argued: I'm just following the rules like all of the others. But it didn't work. I was ordered by the prime minister: Pay the money back, end of discussion. Nigel Wright was present throughout, just the three of us."
Harper in question period on June 5
"I have made it very clear what my views were to all my staff and to our caucus. We expect inappropriate expenses to be reimbursed and I would expect they would be reimbursed by the person who incurred them. I would certainly not expect them to be reimbursed by somebody else."
Harper in question period on June 5
"Mr. Speaker, as I have indicated, Mr. Wright informed me of his personal cheque on May 15. This was an error in judgment. He indicated he did this because he believed that taxpayers should be reimbursed and he was prepared to ensure that happened, as in fact it did happen. However, obviously this was an error in judgment for many reasons that have already been outlined and for that reason, I accepted his resignation."
Harper at a news conference on July 6 in Calgary
"I think if you read the affidavit it makes very clear that the decision to pay money to Mr. Duffy out of Mr Wright’s personal funds was made solely by Mr. Wright and was his responsibility. Obviously, had I known about this earlier I would never have allowed this to take place. When I answered questions about this in the House of Commons I answered questions to the best of my knowledge."