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Is the Senate scandal Canada's Watergate?

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Image: flickr/urbanmixer

The Senate scandal is no longer about Mike Duffy, Nigel Wright or the future of the Senate. It's about Stephen Harper's integrity -- his credibility and trustworthiness.

The Prime Minister's most senior advisers first tried to orchestrate a deal to play down Mr. Duffy's offence of cheating on his expenses so he could remain in the Senate. When this ploy became untenable, they succeeded in arranging his suspension from the Senate. From the beginning, the Prime Minister's inner circle in his office (the PMO) and the Senate were also attempting to cover up these schemes.

Here's what we know, based on court documents from the RCMP:

- The three disgraced Conservative Senators were all appointed by Stephen Harper;

- The Prime Minister's office pushed for a Senate committee report to be changed to soften its charges against Mike Duffy, and it was;

- One of that committee's co-chairs, Senator Carolyn Stewart Olsen, was the Prime Minister's former press secretary and a fiercely loyal personal confidante;

- Conservative senator Irving Gerstein, Stephen Harper's main bagman, took the unusual step of contacting Deloitte, the company that was independently auditing Mr. Duffy's expenses;

- Mr. Gerstein also offered to use Conservative Party funds to pay back Mr. Duffy's expenses;

- That debt was actually paid by the Prime Minister's most senior adviser, chief of staff Nigel Wright;

- At least 15 senior insiders in the Prime Minster's office (PMO) and the Senate were involved in all the wheeling and dealing;

- The Prime Minister's senior advisers worked long and hard to control the damage from the Duffy scandal and to manage the cover-up, as reflected in 260,000 related emails collected by the RCMP and the 2600 eventually selected as directly relevant.


Is it credible that the Prime Minister has no responsibility whatever for any aspect of the scandal?

If Prime Minister Harper was committed to reforming the Senate to make it more independent, as he vowed, why did he appoint 59 Senators whom he expected to follow the government line?

Why did Mr. Harper appoint Pamela Wallin as a Saskatchewan senator and Mike Duffy as a P.E.I. senator when everyone in political Ottawa knew Ms. Wallin resided in Toronto and Mr. Duffy in Kanata?

Why from the start were the Prime Minister and his inner circle so obsessed with Mike Duffy's illicit expenses? They seemed to have had no such preoccupation with Pamela Wallin's.

The Conflict of Interest Code for Senators says that a senator is not allowed to "accept a gift that could reasonably be considered to relate to the senator's position." Many senior Conservatives knew the Conservative Party was prepared to repay Mr. Duffy's illicit debt and that Nigel Wright finally repaid it. Since these payments to Mr. Duffy patently "related to [his] position," did not a single one wonder whether they were violating that Conflict of Interest Code?

For months the Prime Minister insisted that no one in his office besides Nigel Wright had any connection to the Senate scandal. Yet at least 15 senior Conservatives, including his own most senior aides, knew this was completely untrue. Is it plausible that not a single one of them thought to warn him he was uttering an untruthful statement?

Benjamin Perrin, the Prime Minister's staff lawyer until recently, was privy to all the schemes that were being hatched by the PMO. His e-mails were deleted when he left the PMO. What was in those e-mails? Can he be compared to Rose Mary Woods, Richard Nixon's personal secretary during the Watergate cover-up who erased 18.5 minutes of tape?

Assume for a moment the Prime Minister knew nothing of Nigel Wright's personal check for $90,000. When he finally learned, is it remotely conceivable he did not immediately ask Mr. Wright and the rest of his inner circle to fill him in on the entire scheme before he went public and blamed Mr. Wright alone?

Nigel Wright e-mailed a PMO press flack to say "The PM knows in broad terms only that I personally assisted Duffy...to repay the expenses." Does that not mean that the PM knew in advance that Mr. Wright assisted Mr. Duffy?

Why is Nigel Wright potentially guilty of something for personally gifting Mr. Duffy with $90,000 while Senator Gerstein is not being investigated for offering to pay Mr. Duffy $32,000 from Conservative Party funds?

What does it say about the Harper government that of all the many insiders who were privy to the machinations related to Mike Duffy, only one, Senator Marjory LeBreton's aide Christopher Montgomery, considered the attempt to be unethical and possibly illegal?

Is it acceptable that several of the PM's senior staffers who were in on the cover-up still work in the PMO or have senior positions in other ministries?

Finally: Given the information we already have, with more anticipated at any time, is it not finally time to say that the Senate scandal has morphed into Stephen Harper's Watergate?

This article orginally appeared in The Globe and Mail.

Image: flickr/urbanmixer

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