Mike Duffy was appointed a Conservative senator for Prince Edward Island in 2008. In 2014, he was charged with fraud, breach of trust and bribery following a public scandal over his Senate expense claims and how some of that money was ultimately paid back to the government. In April 2016, after a high profile trial, he was cleared of all charges.
Duffy had been living in Ottawa for decades, and in 2012 it would emerge that he had declared his “primary residence” to be PEI, and was claiming living expenses for his Ottawa home. In February 2013, the Senate called in auditors to review Duffy’s living expenses. That process kick started a series of internal reviews that would ensnare several more senators for questionable expense claims.
The issue became a political scandal which swirled most intensely around Duffy, prompting Harper and his Prime Minister's Office to lean hard on the senator to pay back the money. Duffy insisted he'd done nothing wrong, but on 26 March 2013, he delivered a repayment cheque for $90,172.24 to the Senate.
In May, the CTV network reported that Nigel Wright, the prime minister’s chief of staff, had actually paid the bill. The next day, The Canadian Press also reported that Duffy was claiming Senate expenses for times when he was not carrying out Senate business, but was campaigning for Conservative candidates.
Twenty-eight of Duffy's charges were fraud and breach of trust counts connected to his living, office and travel expenses. The remaining three were a breach of trust charge and two bribery charges related to taking the cheque from Wright.
The 31 charges were grouped into four sections:
- Charges one and two related to the fact that Duffy filed living expenses for his long-time Ottawa home, claiming PEI as his primary residence.
- Charges 3-20 related to travel expenses Duffy claimed for trips the Crown argued were personal or partisan, and not related to Senate business.
- Charges 21-28 related to $65,000 in Senate funds spent via a company run by Duffy’s friend Gerald Donohue, who would in turn pay the money out to people doing work for Duffy.
- Charges 29-31 related to the $90,000 cheque Duffy received from Nigel Wright to pay back expense claims. The Crown argued the affair amounted to a bribe, although Wright himself was never charged.
Duffy would plead not guilty to all counts.
The trial began at the Ontario Superior Court on 7 April 2015. Media and public interest was so great that a special overflow courtroom with giant screens broadcasting the proceedings was set up, in addition to the actual courtroom used. Dozens of reporters and spectators attended the first week, although interest waned as the trial dragged on. Interest spiked again when the trial resumed from the summer break just as the 2015 election was called.
The prosecution argued that Duffy’s declaration of a primary residence in PEI was a fraud – given how long he’d been living in Ottawa – and that he had no right to claim expenses for his house in Ottawa. The prosecution also said Duffy claimed expenses for Senate trips when they were actually personal, and that he set up what amounted to a shell company to cover expenses that Senate rules wouldn’t. Prosecutors said Duffy used a go-between to pay for office expenses the Senate refused to cover, such as make-up, and the salary of a "volunteer."
Duffy's defence lawyers argued that because Duffy was appointed as a senator from PEI, he had no choice but to declare his primary residence there. They said Duffy abided by Senate rules and committed no crimes. “Sen. Duffy didn't write these rules, and is not to blame if they seem extraordinarily broad or fuzzy,” defence lawyer Donald Bayne said.
There were 62 days of testimony at the trial, broken up over several months. Thousands of pages of documents were entered into evidence. Current and former Senate officials, senators and members of Parliament were among the witnesses, explaining the Senate's administrative policy and financial rules, and also the partisan operations of the Conservative Party.
Nigel Wright took the witness stand for six days. Wright was asked what he meant when he told his staff in an email: “We are good to go from the PM.” That line had long raised questions about how much Prime Minister Stephen Harper knew about the cheque Wright gave Duffy, despite Harper's longstanding denial of any knowledge of it. Wright explained that Harper had approved a plan in which Duffy himself would repay the money. He insisted the prime minister never knew the funds came personally from Wright himself.
Duffy’s diaries were also introduced as evidence. They contained details of everything from doctor’s appointments to private political conversations. Among the evidence was also a photo of Duffy and Harper with an inscription from the prime minister: “One of my best, hardest-working appointments ever.”
Duffy took the witness stand in his own defence for eight days. His colourful testimony included tales from his days as a junior reporter and his long, successful climb up the media ladder, as his lawyer tried to paint a picture of a hardworking man appointed to the Senate so that he could give back to his country.
Duffy acknowledged some discomfort with his appointment as a senator for PEI. He said he told Harper at the time: “I said, ‘Going in for PEI would not be popular. I'm from PEI, but many people will complain I'm not of PEI.’” But Duffy said he was assured the appointment would work. He also said he was assured that the expense claims he filed over the years were in order.
He said the political scandal left him feeling like “one of these prisoners of war, in a North Korean prison camp, where they put you in front of a camera and you repeat robotically the lines.” He said the pressure during the scandal from the Prime Minister's Office and the Senate was intense. “I was pleading with them to show some kind of decency, all of these born-again Christians were throwing me to the lions.”
Although prosecutors cross-examined him for two days, they never asked about the cheque from Nigel Wright.
Closing arguments at the trial began on 22 February 2016.
Defence lawyer Donald Bayne excoriated Nigel Wright, calling him a “scripture-spouting, self-righteous, certainly self-justifying chief of staff, who actually ruled with an iron fist.” He said Duffy was “a man taking a dive” because of intense political pressure, and that Duffy had only limited involvement in Wright’s decision to cut a cheque. Bayne also took aim at the Crown’s assertion that Duffy was in the Senate for himself. “Sen. Duffy never got a benefit. Look at where he is sitting now, does anybody really think that by capitulating…that he got an advantage or benefit?”
On 21 April 2016, Justice Charles Vaillancourt took four hours to read his verdict. He issued a scathing critique of the way Harper’s office was run and of what the prime minister's staff did to try and make the scandal go away. “The precision and planning of this exercise would make any military commander cry,” he said. “In the context of a democratic society, the plotting revealed in the emails can only be described as unacceptable.''
Vaillancourt also faulted prosecutors for not challenging many of the defence’s assertions, most notably some of Duffy’s own testimony.
Ultimately, Vaillancourt said that while some of the ways Duffy handled his expenses might make people uncomfortable, there were no crimes committed. He dismissed 27 of the 31 charges and found Duffy not guilty of the remaining four.
Bayne called it a resounding acquittal. “I would say that Senator Duffy has been subjected for the last two and half, three years, to more public humiliation than probably any Canadian in history,” he said. The Crown did not appeal the decision.
Duffy had left the Conservative parliamentary caucus during the scandal and was suspended from the Senate as it unfolded. Once cleared of all charges, he resumed sitting as an independent senator with all the associated privileges of the office.
Since the Duffy verdict, three other senators implicated in the expenses scandal have been freed from the prospect of facing a similar trial. The RCMP dropped criminal charges against former Liberal senator Mac Harb and Senator Patrick Brazeau, and announced they would not pursue charges against Senator Pamela Wallin. Both Brazeau and Wallin, once Conservatives, remained in the Senate as independent members.
Despite the court ruling, the Senate insisted that Duffy repay nearly $17,000 in expenses that were ruled inadmissible by the Senate administration. Duffy refused to pay or submit to arbritation on the matter. The Senate responded, saying it would recoup the money by clawing back portions of Duffy's Senate salary.