Senate scandal: Partisan politics trumps everything else

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"If those who make the law do not observe it, who will?"

That question was posted by a judge in sentencing a provincial politician in Saskatchewan in 1995. The former cabinet minister and caucus chair was convicted of fraud and theft and sentenced to three and a half years in prison. He was a key player in an elaborate scam that involved false expense claims run out of the provincial Tory caucus office. Most of the criminal charges in what was dubbed Project Fiddle by RCMP investigators were connected with false expense claims made through MLA allowances. But it was about a lot more than pinching a few bucks out of the public purse. It was about partisan politics, abuse of power and a violation of public trust.

You could say the question asked by the judge back then is relevant today in light of allegations swirling around the Senate scandal. While no charges have been laid in the Senate scandal there are allegations that some Senators may have broken the rules with their expense claims and the RCMP is investigating. In Saskatchewan, as now with the Senate scandal, politicians claimed the rules for allowances were confusing and lacked clarity. Those arguments didn't pass the judicial or the public test back then, and they may be tough to swallow this time considering most Senators appear to have had no trouble understanding and following the rules.

During the 1990s, 15 former Saskatchewan Conservative party officials and MLAs, 10 of them cabinet rank, had pleaded guilty, or had been convicted at trial, of criminal charges including fraud, theft and breach of trust. Five of those were sentenced to prison time. One of them was a former deputy premier and was a Senator when he was charged. He resigned from the Senate after the Supreme Court dismissed his attempt to overturn his fraud conviction.

In sentencing the former deputy premier, the judge said it "should be made known to others that dishonesty in public office will result in harsh sentences." He went on to say: "It's also a sad day for the whole of society. When a leader does wrong, all its citizens feel a sense of disappointment. They lose confidence in government. Cynicism sets in and that is harmful to the entire social fabric."

During Project Fiddle, the willful blindness argument was used successfully by the Crown in helping convict a former cabinet minister. The Crown argued the person knew what was going on in the caucus office, or at the very least turned a blind eye. According to Wikipedia, willful blindness is a term used in law when an individual seeks to avoid civil or criminal liability for a wrongful act by intentionally putting himself in a position where he will be unaware of facts that would render him liable. In lay terms, turning a blind eye has been defined as "if there is knowledge you should have had, could have had, but chose not to have."

"When it comes to the crime of fraud, single mothers who, out of desperation, cheat on welfare, have most often gone to jail."

"Impoverished family breadwinners who, also out of desperation, cheat on unemployment insurance, have most often gone to jail."

Those were comments made by a Saskatchewan judge when sentencing a politician to prison.

Saskatchewan is not the only province where provincial politicians have been convicted and jailed for fraud and breach of trust connected to their allowances. In Newfoundland and Labrador, four former politicians were convicted in a spending scandal which erupted in 2006 following a report by the provincial auditor general. And a public servant who oversaw spending from the taxpayer-funded constituency allowances of provincial politicians pleaded guilty to fraud and influence peddling. In Nova Scotia four politicians were charged in 2011 following an investigation by that province's auditor general into constituency allowances spending. They all pleaded guilty.

Then there's the ex-Liberal Senator who was convicted in 2011 of fraud and breach of trust. He was convicted of fraud for claiming travel expenses for trips taken by his staffers. He was convicted of breach of trust for having his staff work on this personal farm while on the taxpayer's dime. He was sentenced to six months in jail and six months of house arrest. His conviction was recently upheld by the Ontario Court of Appeal.

After Project Fiddle, the Saskatchewan government tightened the rules for MLA allowances. The scandal caused the demise of the Saskatchewan Conservative Party and the birth of the Saskatchewan Party. In the wake of the Newfoundland and Labrador spending scandal, a commission was established to look at constituency allowances and related matters. In his report, entitled Rebuilding Confidence, the commissioner, Hon. J. Derek Green, states that "transparency and accountability are the building blocks of public confidence."

Accountability and transparency have become the new Senate buzz words in Ottawa. But the buzzing may sound a bit shallow when it comes from Senators who are alleged to have been in on the "white-wash" of at least one report on a Senator's inappropriate expense claims, and possibly with the involvement of the Prime Ministers' office. Sounds like a plot for a cover-up in an attempt to avoid a political embarrassment that backfired.

In its day, Saskatchewan's Project Fiddle was dubbed as the biggest case of criminal wrongdoing and breach of public trust by elected politicians in Canadian history. Depending on how you might measure the "bigness" of a political scandal, some might argue that Project Fiddle has since been surpassed by the Liberal's federal sponsorship scandal, and who knows, maybe the Senate scandal may eventually claim the title, considering its ties to the Prime Minister's office.

If Project Fiddle and other fraud cases that involved politicians and their allowances are any indication it could be a while before the RCMP get to the bottom of the Senate scandal and determine whether or not any laws may have been broken. Regardless of the outcome of the RCMP investigations, the Senate scandal has likely done some serious damage to Canadian's confidence and trust in politicians.

"Politics should be regarded as a worthy pursuit engaged in only by honourable men and women, inspired by the opportunity for public service": A comment by a Saskatchewan judge before sentencing a former politician who was convicted of fraud.

Gerry Jones is a journalist and the author of SaskScandal: The Death of Political Idealism in Saskatchewan. He is a member of the CWA Canada Retired Members' Council and the Congress of Union Retirees of Canada.

Retiree Matters is a monthly column written by members of the Congress of Union Retirees of Canada (CURC) that explores issues relevant to retirees, senior citizens, their families and their communities. CURC acts as an advocacy organization to ensure that the concerns of union retirees and senior citizens are heard throughout Canada.

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