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Harper Is a Mere Extra in Duffy's Senate Spectacular

11/21/2013 05:14 EST | Updated 01/25/2014 04:01 EST

Contrary to the sensationalistic headlines appearing everywhere as of late, the big, long, RCMP report released yesterday about the Nigel Wright/Mike Duffy Senate payoff brouhaha doesn't contain much for the Prime Minister to fear. Let alone give him reason to fear for his job.

Far from offering any damning new evidence suggesting the culpability of the PM in criminal wrongdoing, or even a coverup of such, the 110-page exposé exists primarily to gorily eviscerate the credibility of Senator Duffy -- who now must certainly rank as one of the most hideously unethical men to ever hold public office in this country. It also exonerates his chief of staff, Nigel Wright -- who merely comes off as too principled for his own good. Both men are formally accused of bribery and breach of trust, but they arrived at that common destination from opposite ends of the moral spectrum.

Prime Minister Harper, in contrast, barely appears at all. Other characters refer to him in passing a few times, and there are a few fleeting mentions of him being vaguely aware of this-or-that, or having unspecifically approved of some of Nigel Wright's conduct, all without further elaboration. But the impact of even these "bombshell" revelations are dramatically counter-balanced by repeated assertions by the story's key players, and more importantly, the report's author himself, that no hard evidence for direct prime ministerial culpability in any of the lurid activities of Wright and Duff exists.

Duffy, as we all know inside-out by now, spent much of his pointless Senate career billing the government for hundreds of personal travel, housing and meal expenses after discovering he could opt-in to a lavish compensatory expense account so long as he pretended to be living in Prince Edward Island.

Once auditors and reporters got wind of this, it was revealed that Duffy had written off over $90,000 worth of goodies through this scam, which eventually prompted Mr. Wright to cut Duffy a cheque for that same amount, make him reimburse the parliamentary treasury and end the national outrage. It's illegal to give this kind of money to a politician, so Harper fired Wright, who claimed to have acted alone.

No element of this basic storyline is contested by Wednesday's RCMP report. And unless you find the events recounted above particularly scandalous -- which is to say, an executive branch bureaucrat paying cash out of his own pocket to refund taxpayers for the ill-gotten perks of a member of Canada's decadent second house of parliament -- there's not much else in the thing that's going to shock you.

What might at least disturb you, however, is the character of Senator Duffy, who, based on the evidence compiled by the report's author, Corporal Greg Horton, is an appallingly greedy, paranoid, insecure, ignorant, dishonest, sad little man who single-handedly forced the Government of Canada into an overwrought standstill of scandal through sheer arrogance and entitlement. We now know he's been lying continuously about just about everything throughout this whole mess, and to just about everyone -- including, it seems, himself.

Though the Duffy scandal is fundamentally all about money, Corporal Horton makes clear that from Duffy's perspective, it was all about his job. This is because Duffy has apparently long believed in an elaborate conspiracy theory in which everyone, everywhere is secretly plotting to strip him of his Senate seat and boot him from the chamber. 

Again and again, as Wright raised concerns with Duffy about his crooked expense tabs (which, the report notes, were not illegal per se, but deeply bothered Wright from a "moral perspective") and demanded he repay them, Duffy demanded assurances of his own that his ability to remain a PEI senator would not be compromised by conceding responsibility.

Duffy was apparently dimly aware that Canadian senators are supposed to have some manner of permanent relationship with the provinces they represent, but his larger ignorance of what the constitution actually says about this (it merely stipulates that senators must own property in "their" province, which Duffy did) allowed wild paranoia to fill in the gaps.

He was particularly obsessed with the idea that Carolyn Stewart-Olson, a high-ranking Tory senator with ties to the Prime Minister, was plotting to introduce a senate resolution to force him from the Conservative Party -- or worse, expel him from the chamber altogether -- for not living in PEI full-time. He repeatedly insisted on assurances from Wright that, in exchange for repaying the money he unjustly embezzled (very generous, at that), the Conservative leadership would force all Tory senators to reject this non-existent motion. An aghast Senate Majority Leader Marjorie LeBreton is quoted as wondering if Duffy "lies awake at night dreaming up these things!"

Speaking of things Duffy dreamed up, something else the report states repeatedly, and indeed often in terms so blunt they border on snarky, is that this whole business of getting someone other than Duffy himself to pay off the Senator's ill-gotten expense tab, cover his legal fees and soften a then-underway Senate report on his conduct, was a scheme cooked up by Duffy and imposed on Wright, who was ultimately too naive and loyal -- both to his government and taxpayers -- to realize the enormous consequences that would result from going along with it. On the floor of the Senate, Duffy called the conspiracy a "monstrous fraud" of which he was extorted by threats to join; Corporal Horton, in contrast, dryly notes on page 72 that "the evidence I have seen shows that the demands made by Senator Duffy in February" -- when his lawyers explicitly set out their client's terms of cooperation -- "were the start of the 'monstrous fraud.'"

The portrait painted of Wright, meanwhile, is a man so earnest it's almost cloying. The gist of his motive, summarized by Horton on page 18, is worth quoting in full:

Mr. Wright explained that he is financially comfortable, having been successful in the private sector prior to agreeing to work within the PMO. Since taking on the position within the PMO he has not filed expense claims for anything, including meals, flights, hotels or legal fees.

He estimates he out of pocket [sic] tens of thousands of dollars, but it is his global view and contribution to public policy that taxpayers not bear the cost of his position if he can legitimately afford to fund it himself. Because of this [sic] personal beliefs and financial ability, he took the personal decision at that time to pay back the $90,000. He did not view it as something out of the norm for him to do, and was part of being a good person.

The 90 grand given to Duffy, in other words, was not "hush money" or any of the other wild things claimed by the opposition in Question Period every afternoon. It was, as was always asserted, merely a way for a rich, ethical man to right a wrong committed against taxpayers by a inexplicably poor, morally bankrupt one.

And what, finally, of the Prime Minister? He makes but a brief cameo appearance in the lengthy report, during a single paragraph of Wright's testimony. On page 15, the infamous February 13 meeting of Wright, Duffy, and Harper is recounted, which by now multiple sources have confirmed was not really much of a meeting at all, but a brief chat in the corner of a crowded room following a gigantic Tory caucus conference in which every single minister, MP, and Senator was present. In a classic "ask mom when dad says no"-type situation, Duffy had approached the PM to ask if it was really that bad to pretend to live in PEI in order to opt-into the Senate's distant-residence slush-fund, only to have Nigel run over and counter that yes, yes it was. "The Prime Minister listened to both positions," says the report, painting an almost Solomonic image, and sided with his chief of staff. Pay it back, Duff.

Beyond that, Harper the man is entirely absent from a narrative that's very much the Duffy/Wright show. To the extent he comes up at all, the references are opaque and fleeting.

Though much has been made of a few lines on page 33, in which a Wright email mentions getting the "go-ahead" from someone (we assume Harper) to do something, then quipping he's "good to go from the PM" on something else, what exactly Wright is referring to is never made clear. This isn't splitting hairs either, given the tendency of the report's characters to muddle together three distinct goals in their scheming: that Duffy's expenses should be repaid, that someone other than Duffy himself should do the repaying, and that someone else should pay his legal bills, too. It's entirely possible to imagine Harper agreeing to all of this, in a general sense (as in, "Wright should resolve the Duffy situation"), without undermining his claims of ignorance on the specifics. Regardless, the page 33 quotes occur quite early in the story, long before the sheer magnitude of Duffy's tab was known, and Wright's decision to pay it off out of his own pocket had been devised.

The idea that Harper was only vaguely aware of what was going on is further reenforced in another highly quotable line on page 45, by which time Wright had paid Duffy's $90,000 tab and wider society was beginning to learn about it. The PM's press secretary asks Wright how much Harper knows, and Wright replies that "the PM knows, in broad terms only, that I personally assisted Duffy when I was getting him to agree to repay the expenses." As far as smoking guns go, that's hardly a precision shot.

Wright himself says Harper didn't know the details of his payback plan. Wright's assistants Ray Novak and David van Hemmen say Harper didn't know. Senator Gerstein -- the head of the Tory Party who was involved in the infamous "second cheque" scheme to use Conservative money to pay Duffy's legal bills -- says Harper didn't know.

"The evidence I have viewed suggest that the Prime Minister was informed by his staff that they were working on a plan to have Senator Duffy repay expenses," concludes Corporal Horton on page 70, but "I have seen no evidence to suggest that the Prime Minister was personally involved in the minutiae of these matters." And then, a page later: "I am not aware of any evidence that the Prime Minister was involved in the repayment or reimbursement of money to Senator Duffy or his lawyer."

What did the PM know and when did he know it? The answer is barely different now than it ever was: Harper knew early on Duffy needed to return what he took and he knew his staffers were working hard to make that happen. It was his overzealous underlings who ultimately forged the payoff plan that would wind up causing him so much grief, however, and the notion that they did so without his consent will only shock those who are so committed to the trope of "Harper-as-control-freak" that they're willing to ignore the occam's razor explanation that yes, the Prime Minister of Canada actually does have better things to do than worry endlessly about a single embarrassing legislator in a parliament full of them. Run the country, for instance.

In his investigation's introduction, Corporal Horton mentions that his office specializes in "matters of significant risk to Canada's political, economic and social integrity." Those hoping to find any of that in his report will be severely disappointed.

Highlights From The Wright-Duffy Police Documents