09/16/2014 02:53 EDT | Updated 06/16/2017 00:53 EDT

Mike Duffy trial won't be run as a 'political vendetta,' lawyer says

A lawyer for Mike Duffy says his client's trial on fraud, bribery and breach of trust charges won't be run as a "personal or political vendetta," but didn't rule out calling Prime Minister Stephen Harper as a witness.

Donald Bayne represented Duffy at his first court appearance Tuesday as both the Crown and defence agreed to return to court Sept. 23 to set a date for the suspended Conservative-appointed senator's trial. 

"This is a criminal case and it's going to be conducted professionally," Bayne said, adding the Ontario judiciary wouldn't allow for the trial to turn into a "circus."

Bayne wouldn't say whether he would call Harper as a witness and he disputed the idea that Duffy wants the trial to run at the same time as the next federal election, set for October 2015.

"This is not being run as a personal or political vendetta," Bayne said.

The first court date for Duffy — the affable TV personality, turned fiercely loyal Conservative partisan, turned Tory black sheep and poster boy for the Senate scandal — took only minutes.

Bayne confirmed Duffy doesn't want a preliminary inquiry and will go straight to a trial.

'This will be his first opportunity for a complete airing of all the evidence before an impartial tribunal and his opportunity to clear his name, to show that he is guilty of no wrongdoing," he said.

Duffy's health a concern

Bayne told a crowd of reporters on his way to the court that the first day of proceedings would be brief, and it lived up to that billing, as the curtain raises on what's sure to be the most politically charged courtroom drama to play out in Ottawa in many years.

But the trial itself will be lengthy, Bayne predicted: He says it could last six to eight weeks.

Duffy's health is a consideration as they push to set a trial date, Bayne said.

"You know he's had two open heart surgeries. So part of our concern to get the matter on with all reasonable and due dispatch is his physical and emotional and mental health."

Bayne agreed with a reporter's suggestion that Duffy's finances are strained, but wouldn't answer a question about how Duffy was paying him, asking in return what had made journalists think he's a high-priced lawyer.

High stakes for government

The way the ensuing trial plays out could have major repercussions for Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative government ahead of next year's federal election campaign.

Timing, of course, is everything. The fixed election date is Oct. 19, 2015. Duffy has made it abundantly clear that he has no qualms whatsoever about dragging his former party through the mud. The speed of the trial and whether it has the potential to harm Conservative electoral fortunes will have political strategists making their calculations about whether to go to the polls earlier than next October.

One big question looms over the trial: how much did Harper know about the secret $90,000 payment made by his former chief of staff Nigel Wright to cover Duffy's contested Senate expenses?

The prime minister on many occasions has insisted that he knew nothing of the plan to repay Duffy's expenses. 

Whether Harper is actually called as a witness is anyone's guess. The courts are reluctant to call prime ministers while Parliament is sitting. Far more likely is that the court will hear from Wright, who now lives in London, where he is helping build up the European business of Onex Corp., the company he left in 2010 to join the Prime Minister's Office.

The RCMP did not lay any charges against Wright. Others who could also figure prominently in the legal to-and-fro are Harper's former leader in the Senate, Marjory LeBreton, the current Conservative Fund chairman Irving Gerstein, the prime minister's former legal counsel and other close aides.

Dramatic public denunciations

It's also expected the court will hear from Senate staff and members of the Board of Internal Economy.

If Duffy's dramatic public denunciations of Harper and his closest officials on the floor of the Senate last fall are any indication, the former broadcaster will not hold anything back in defending himself.

"It will all come out in due course when all of the players are under oath and the email chain can be seen in its entirety," Duffy foreshadowed during his speech on Oct. 22.

Duffy faces 31 criminal counts related to his expense claims, which stem from his Senate housing and travel charges and the $90,000 payment from Wright.

A lawyer for Duffy's colleague, suspended Senator Patrick Brazeau, was in court Monday to set a date for the preliminary inquiry into fraud and breach of trust charges related to Brazeau's Senate expenses.

Brazeau has to wait until next June for his next court date on charges of fraud and breach of trust.