POLITICS

Audited Senators Use Duffy Trial To Push Back At Auditor General Report

06/09/2015 02:22 EDT | Updated 06/09/2016 05:59 EDT
OTTAWA - For some senators, the auditor general's scrutiny of their expenses sent them hurtling right into the Mike Duffy dimension.

Just 16 months after many of them voted to suspend the former Conservative senator over his contested living and travel expenses, some of them are now invoking his trial as they push back against Michael Ferguson's highly critical report.

The living expenses, the trips to funerals, the office contracts and the poor record keeping — many of the details in the auditor general's report find an echo in the trial of the suspended senator down the street at the courthouse.

Duffy has pleaded not guilty to 31 charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery in connection with his office, living and travel spending. Ironically, his own lawyer has moved to include previous Senate audits into evidence at the trial.

One of the central areas revolves around the nearly $90,000 Duffy claimed for living expenses for his longtime Ottawa-area home, while declaring a cottage in Prince Edward Island as his primary residence. Fellow senators Patrick Brazeau and Mac Harb face similar charges.

The Senate's internal economy committee responded to the scandal with a report in 2013 saying that if a senator lived primarily in the capital region, he or she shouldn't be claiming expenses.

But it would seem that report is a distant memory now. Some senators quoted directly from the Duffy trial in their letters back to Ferguson, which were included in Tuesday's audit report.

In particular, they seemed to hang on the testimony of former Senate law clerk Mark Audcent, who said during the early days of Duffy's ongoing trial that there were no real criteria for what constitutes a primary and secondary residence.

Ferguson's team, meanwhile, refers to "normal" travel patterns, and "substantive presence" in a home. Ferguson said his office based its decisions on the Senate committee's 2013 view of residency.

"The auditor general is applying a test that was rejected by the former law clerk in order to reach a conclusion that is not supported by my clear and many attachments to my province while I was a member of the Senate," fumed former Liberal senator William Rompkey, who had $3,134 in living expenses questioned.

Fellow retired Liberal senator Rod Zimmer, who is red-circled for $47,132 in living expenses alone out of a total of more than $176,000, suggests that the auditor general could be interfering in the Duffy trial by pronouncing on residency requirements.

"Will this be seen as prejudging the conclusion (Duffy judge) Justice Charles Vaillancourt will reach on the same matter, and what if Justice Vaillancourt does not agree with the auditor general's interpretation?" Zimmer writes.

Conservative Sen. Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu racked up $15,826 in living expenses, while the report found he was spending little time in Sherbrooke, Que.

"Sherbrooke was my primary residence under the rules of the Senate, the civil code of Quebec and income tax rules," Boisvenu responded.

Retired Liberal Sen. Sharon Carstairs was highlighted for $2,399 in living expense claims. Her response matched that of Duffy.

"There are no rules with respect to the number of days spent in the primary residence," Carstairs said. "Had such rules existed I would have fulfilled them as I did all other rules in the Senate."

Ferguson, meanwhile, said that his team didn't focus on rules, but rather the fundamental principles behind the Senate's rules — namely, that money be spent responsibly and for public business.

A Senate official who spoke on condition of anonymity Tuesday acknowledged that senators could find the residency issue caught up in two tracks — the Duffy trial and special arbitrator Ian Binnie, a former Supreme Court justice assigned to deal with the cases raised by the auditor.

When asked about that, government Senate leader Claude Carignan said that Binnie's decision on the cases he adjudicates will be the last word on Senate residency.

Carignan also said there would be no immediate suspension of senators, unlike in 2013, when the Senate passed a motion to oust Duffy, Harb, Brazeau and Pamela Wallin.

Instead, two senators' cases — Boisvenu and Liberal Colin Kenny — will be sent to the Senate ethics commissioner, and then possibly on to a disciplinary committee.

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