Only in Canada would paying money back to the government qualify as a scandal. But a scandal it is.
Ironically, it was not the original actions of the primary players that were likely criminal or even scandalous -- it was how the issues were managed by issues management and then how they were communicated by PMO communications.
It is unclear, given the ambiguous Senate rules, that Mike Duffy was ineligible to claim a secondary residency in Kanata. And there would be nothing illegal about paying another's questionable housing allowance; a $90,000 cheque to a non-friend/relative is perhaps highly unusual but certainly not the making of a scandal (provided there was no quid pro quo and the matter is further complicated in that a senator is a public office holder).
But I suspect that if the PMO had issued a release two and half years ago indicating that Nigel Wright had repaid the dubious expenses, we would be talking about something else today. But not so if you lie about it; if you concoct a story that the senator took out a loan to pay the money back himself, you can set forth in motion a train wreck of potentially administration ending proportions. The motivation in this self-inflicted scandal was to salvage the reputation of the Conservative appointment and then key fundraising asset.
Having launched the Harper administration on this calamitous journey, the boys in short pants at the PMO decided to double, and then triple, down. Besides providing Duffy with talking points, chock full of lies, they would then attempt to sanitize a Senate investigation and then preempt a Deloitte audit. In what must be an excruciating embarrassment for Deloitte, it appears that PMO staffers somehow got details from the audit in advance, presumably to begin damage control with more manufactured lines.
It appears that Duffy didn't expressly request the 90k -- in fact it looks like the PMO strong-armed him into taking it. As almost everything in the Ottawa bubble is, this entire operation was micro-managed from the PMO from the minute the disputed expense claims were an embarrassment for the prime minister.
The prime minister could have, and should have, let Duffy fight his own battles but as the political equivalent of an ATM machine on the rubber chicken circuit, Duffy, in addition to Pamela Wallin, were seen as political assets and therefore deserving of "help."
Then for months, the boys in short pants, knowing that about a half dozen of them, which may now include chief of staff Ray Novak, were all in the loop, knowingly allowed several high profile ministers to tell a lie to the House of Commons that "Nigel Wright had acted alone." But why merely damage the reputations of soon to be departed high profile ministers such as John Baird and James Moore plus Peter Van Loan; while you are at it, you might as well sully the reputation of the prime minister by having him repeat the same fallacy.
Obstructing auditors, interfering with the Senate Committee on Internal Economy, conspiring to deceive the public and having numerous ministers of the Crown unknowingly mislead Parliament all to cover up what, although politically embarrassing, may not have been illegal! As Nixon famously said, it's not the crime, it's the cover-up...
But it takes a special combination of incompetence and lack of ethics to convert a comparably innocuous act into a potentially fatal political scandal.
This blog was originally published on Brent Rathgeber's site.
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