The Senate committee on internal economy has voted unanimously to send the matter of Senator Mike Duffy's expense claims to the RCMP.
The motion Tuesday from Conservative Senator Larry Smith was suggested after the committee heard a report from the Senate clerk revealing that Duffy had a pattern of claiming living expenses in Ottawa when he was not in the capital on Senate business.
The Senate clerk, Gary O'Brien, explained Duffy claimed 18 days last August for per diems on the grounds that he was working on Senate business.
Senate administration staff refused the claim because it understood that Duffy was on vacation at his P.E.I. cottage. It appears the staff was suspicious about some of Duffy's claims even before the accounting firm Deloitte was commissioned to conduct a forensic review of his expenses.
Citing information discovered by the auditing firm Deloitte, O'Brien, as well as Nicole Proulx, the Senate director of finances, told the committee their staff disallowed a total of 25 out of 49 expense claims Duffy submitted over a period of time.
Some of the rejected claims occurred during the writ period of the May 2, 2011, general election. It's known that Duffy appeared at events for various Conservative candidates across the country during the election. Senate rules are explicit that senators cannot claim expenses from the Senate when they are campaigning.
The Senate administration staff was able to use Deloitte's findings to determine Duffy was not in Ottawa on the disallowed days. The accounting firm tracked Duffy's whereabouts by cross-checking his claims with his Senate-issued cellphone records as well as his Senate-issue American Express Corporate credit card.
Proulx said that Duffy refused to provide information to her staff about his claims.
The Deloitte audit on Duffy, which was released on May 9, indicated that Duffy claimed expenses for 12 days while he was on vacation in Florida. Shortly after, Duffy issued a statement saying that a temporary staffer had made a mistake in filling out forms, and that he had repaid the money.
On Tuesday the Senate clerk told the committee the Senate administration's own review shows Duffy's Florida claim was "not an isolated incident, but represents a pattern that raises concerns."
The Senate committee tasked with reviewing the controversial expense claims of Duffy opened up the meeting to the public Tuesday afternoon, in a rare gesture, as it conducted its second look at the now former Conservative's books. The meeting was televised, and packed with reporters.
Duffy didn't appear at the meeting, despite a suggestion to a reporter earlier that he would, and despite the fact that his lawyer asked the committee about the time and the place of the meeting to review the controversial $90,000 cheque he received from Nigel Wright, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's former chief of staff.
"Why wouldn't I?" Duffy replied when asked by a reporter Tuesday if he planned to show up.
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The meeting was chaired by Conservative Senator David Tkachuk. He and Conservative Senator Carolyn Stewart Olsen were on a three-person sub-committee who originally voted to alter the report the Senate issued on Duffy in a way that seemed to exonerate him.
Tuesday evening, Stewart Olsen agreed on strengthening the report "in light of recent information."
The committee said it did not know the money Duffy used to repay his expense claims was given to him by the prime minister's top aide, Wright, who has since resigned.
The committee voted unanimously on a second motion to change the wording on its May 9 report on Duffy, restoring language that had been taken out about how Senate residency rules are "clear" and "unambiguous," and reinserting a conclusion that Duffy's primary residence is in Ottawa, and not in P.E.I, as he had claimed. It also voted to include the reference to send Duffy's expense claims to the RCMP in the report.
Prime minister faced persistent questions
Meanwhile, the prime minister faced persistent and specific questions from Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau in the House of Commons Tuesday for the first time since a deepening Senate expenses scandal claimed his chief of staff more than a week ago.
Harper, who flew to South America for a series of trade missions last week after delivering a speech to his caucus, did not attend question period Monday.
Evidence surfaced last week that members of the committee had altered their report on Duffy, now sitting as an Independent, in the hours leading up to its tabling in the Senate on May 9, removing references to the rules being "very clear" and Duffy's travel patterns not being consistent with maintaining a permanent residence on P.E.I.
Separate evidence suggested that Duffy was submitting expense claims to the Conservative Party for travel and appearances he made on the party's behalf during the 2011 federal election, while at the same time filing reports that showed he was on Senate business.
Faced with controversy over both, Senate leaders agreed on the need to send the Senate's report on Duffy back to the committee for a second review.
The committee's chair, Tory David Tkachuk, has been away recovering from surgery, but returned to his duties on Tuesday. He said in a media interview last week that he did discuss Duffy's case with the Prime Minister's Office before the report was tabled.
Liberal senators had suggested they would try to remove Tkachuk and Stewart Olsen from the committee before its review of Duffy's expenses, since they were responsible for revising the final report on Duffy to remove critical paragraphs. But Conservatives made it clear that would not happen, and Liberal Senator George Furey, the third member of the committee that produced the Duffy report, said he was satisfied that an open meeting was enough.
Bring in the AG, Segal says
On Tuesday, Conservative Senator Hugh Segal told reporters the auditor general should be regularly reviewing senators' expenses.
"I've said from the very beginning that the auditor general should be called in not only to do a regular audit of this place, comprehensively, making its results public, but should also be called in to take a fresh look, fresh set of eyes on the various allegations, expense and other issues that have been raised in this context," Segal said.
Segal might be a voice in the wilderness in holding this view, but he said Marjory LeBreton, the government Senate leader, told a TV interviewer she would welcome the auditor general.
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However, Segal pointed out, "To be fair she doesn't have the authority to call [in the auditor general]. What would have to happen is the Senate as a whole would have to invite the AG in and that would require negotiation with the two main parties ... and I would hope that would be on the agenda of both leaderships of both parties going forward."
Conservative Senator Vern White, a former Ottawa chief of police, told reporters, "Thirty-one years in policing there wasn't one time when I was embarrassed as a result of behaviour of one of the people who worked with me because of what they did. There are some days when I'm embarrassed by what some people have done. I have to be honest."
Later, White put out a press release, saying he's asking the Senate ethics officer to decide whether Liberal Senator Pana Merchant violated the Senate conflict of interest code. He pointed to a CBC report that said Merchant is the beneficiary to a $1.7 million trust set up in an offshore tax haven by her husband.
"Many in the Senate are encouraging reforms to better improve our accountability and transparency," White said, adding he hopes Merchant can provide "clarity to the issue at hand."
Wright is still in Ottawa and told a CTV journalist who caught him during his morning run on Tuesday that he is co-operating with an investigation now underway by the federal ethics commissioner.
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