POLITICS

Report On Senator Don Meredith Allegations Expected This Week, Leo Housakos Says

06/29/2015 07:06 EDT | Updated 06/29/2016 05:59 EDT

Senate Speaker Leo Housakos says he hopes to receive a report this week from the outside firm investigating allegations of staff harassment in the office of Senator Don Meredith, who was suspended from the Conservative caucus earlier this month.

"It was supposed to be the last week of June," Housakos told CBC News last week. "But I think with all the news reports, from what I understand, the private firm that is conducting the assessment is having a harder time getting some of the individuals who are involved in the assessment to come forward in confidence and speak.

"We've assured them of complete confidentiality," he said.

Housakos's predecessor, the late P.C. Nolin, initiated a workplace assessment review in February amid rumours of harassment and bullying in Meredith's office.

No formal complaint was made, but the concerns relate to at least four employees.

"[Nolin] thought it was unusual to have the turnover that Senator Meredith had in his office over a number of months, and I guess there was a lot of hearsay, left and right, of poor behaviour," Housakos said.

"We take sexual harassment in the workplace very, very seriously," he said, calling the allegations Meredith now faces "unacceptable and certainly not becoming of a senator.

"His employees happen to be our employees," the Speaker said. "It's a unique situation."

'I want to avoid crucifying anybody unfairly'

Meredith, named to the Senate in 2010 representing Ontario, was suspended from the Conservative caucus on June 17 after a woman told the Toronto Star she had a two-year relationship with the senator that began when she was 16.

She has not made a formal complaint. But Housakos referred this allegation to the Senate ethics officer for investigation.

Meredith, now on a leave of absence, has not commented on the allegations. He has hired a lawyer.

The Senate's steering committee of its board of internal economy will receive the report, but it won't be made public. The committee may call Meredith in to explain his side of the story, and more investigation may be necessary.

The ethics officer and ethics committee could be engaged in the staff harassment allegations, too.

Housakos said the Senate is mindful of what happened when harassment allegations surfaced against two MPs last year, without any formal complaints.

"We can't have injustice carried out against senators just because they're public figures," he said. "I want to avoid crucifying anybody unfairly. We want to make sure there's due process."

Suspension vote possible?

Summer recess looms this week, but the Senate's board continues to meet and conduct business through the summer and the expected fall election.

"We couldn't hold a suspension vote," Housakos said. "But we certainly could prepare one."

If criminal charges are laid, a suspension becomes automatic.

It's been an eventful few days for Housakos, who insists the Senate is making progress in its efforts to modernize.

He began last week by taking the rare, "but not that unusual," step of voting against passage of The Reform Act.

Senate Speakers often stay neutral and seek consensus on legislation. But Conservative Michael Chong's private member's bill was "a terrible bill across the board" and undermines the principles of the British parliamentary system, Housakos said.

By week's end, the new Speaker found himself overruled by a majority of senators from his own party over another piece of private member's legislation. He'd ruled against a Conservative move to end a filibuster blocking the contentious anti-union bill's passage.

C-377 is expected to pass early this week.

Forced repayments for expenses

The fallout from Auditor General Michael Ferguson's June 9 report also continues.

All 30 of the senators with expenses flagged as inappropriate received 30-day notices to recover the money.

While 19 have opted for the new arbitration process, only eight of the remaining 11 have paid in full.

Those three, all now retired — Marie Charette-Poulin, Don Oliver and Rod Zimmer — are among the nine cases referred to the RCMP.

With the 30 days nearly up, court proceedings may follow. "We will be taking action against them to collect the amount," Housakos said.

Those in arbitration will have 30 days to repay once Ian Binnie has ruled on each case.

Arbitration by the former Supreme Court justice is expected to begin in August. Housakos hopes the entire process can be complete by Christmas, but that's up to Binnie now, he said.

The Speaker himself was fingered for $8,319 in inappropriate expenses, now repaid in full. He stands by his objection to Ferguson's finding.

"I paid up simply because I decided to put the institution's interests, the interests of the Speaker, ahead of my personal interests, given the circumstances," he said.

"You don't always get justice up here."

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