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On Monday, Senator Mike Duffy shocked the Senate with the news that the Conservative hierarchy had written more than one cheque on his behalf.
The Senator from Prince Edward Island produced a copy of a cheque to his lawyer for $13,500 from Conservative lawyer Arthur Hamilton’s firm, Cassels, Brock and Blackwell.
Duffy says that payment was to cover his legal fees, incurred in negotiating the deal whereby he would agree to “pay back” the now famous $90,000.
We do not know where that $13,500 came from.
Was it, like the $90,000, from Nigel Wright’s deep pocket? If so, why did the Conservative Party lawyer handle it?
And did Arthur Hamilton handle the $90,000 cheque as well?
In addition to the cheque, Duffy produced an email from Nigel Wright in which the Prime Minister’s then Chief of Staff said Duffy was within the rules to claim expenses for his National Capital home.
At that point in time, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) did not seem to worry about the fact that such a procedure would not pass the smell test with ordinary, hardworking taxpayers.
PMO concocted the false Royal Bank loan story
Even more dramatic was what Duffy had to say about the phony “back story” he put out last spring to explain where he got the $90,000.
As you may remember, Duffy claimed, at the time, that he had borrowed $90,000 from the Royal Bank of Canada.
In his self-righteous answers in the House and in media interviews, Prime Minister Harper has proclaimed he fully believed Duffy’s fictitious account.
But Duffy told the Senate on Monday that the whole Royal Bank story was, in fact, cooked up by Harper’s own closest associates in the Prime Minister’s Office.
The broadcaster-turned-Senator said the PMO even provided him with what are called “media lines.” Those are crib sheets of prepared answers communication professionals put together for politicians and others in the public eye.
Duffy did not produce documentary evidence of those media lines. But, if true, that part of his Senate testimony is truly explosive.
It demonstrates that the key people in the PMO considered this whole matter to be a major crisis they had to manage.
And manage it they did.
It is almost impossible to imagine how all that fevered activity could be going on in the Prime Minister’s Langevin Building offices, while the Prime Minister remained blissfully ignorant.
If it is true that Stephen Harper knew nothing about the two cheques, nothing about the arrangements negotiated with Duffy that involved what seem to have been teams of lawyers, and nothing about the elaborate public relations strategy developed in conjunction with all that, what does it tell us about Harper as a leader, or even a senior manager?
We’re at the point now where the Conservatives’ best-case scenario is for Canadians to believe that we had an out-of-control PMO, running around cutting deals, making questionable payments, and providing well-crafted lies to a sitting Senator — all behind the Prime Minister’s back.
How does that make Harper look?
Whatever your answer might be, it is not likely: “Good.”
When Richard Nixon’s Watergate-era defence of “plausible deniability” is the best case you can make, you haven’t got much of a case.
Very strange rules for ‘residency’
Duffy did release another document on Monday, which might not be getting as much attention as the cheque and the Nigel Wright email.
It is, nonetheless, a very significant part of the story.
This document, a 2009 letter from then Government Senate Leader Marjorie LeBreton to Duffy and Wallin, is an opinion crafted by a Senate constitutional expert on the issue of Senate residency qualifications.
The expert, Christopher McCreery, said bluntly and quite surprisingly, that the Senate can decide for itself what constitutes residency. The upper house does not have to conform to any other definition of residency, be that of the Canada Revenue Agency, the Public Service Commission or any other government agency or department.
McCreery went so far as to assert that the Senate can consider one of its members to be a resident of — say — PEI even if he or she spends 99 per cent of his or her time in Ottawa!
The Senate expert did not specifically say that conforming to this odd, and almost meaningless, residency requirement would then entitle such a Senator to claim a housing allowance for a home in Ottawa. But Duffy obviously believed that to be the case.
And Nigel Wright, speaking on behalf of the PMO, and ergo the Prime Minister, agreed with the man from PEI — in writing.
In his note, McCreery referred briefly to Article 23 of the BNA Act, which clearly states that a Senator must “be resident” of the province he or she represents.
The expert argued, however, that despite what the Constitution says, there is a longstanding convention that the only constitutional requirement that matters is the one concerning property.
McCreey told Duffy, Wallin and LeBreton that as long as a Senator owns at least $4,000 worth of property in “the province of his or her appointment,” he or she is allowed to represent that province in the Senate.
It is a strange and legalistic argument, relying entirely on precedents in the Senate itself.
But it apparently gave comfort to Duffy and Wallin — and the Conservative Senate leadership — that the legitimacy of the two star Harper appointees could not be challenged.
But there is a rub — and here it is.
The Prime Minister is responsible to the Constitution, not to the Senate’s own odd rules
McCreery only offers an opinion about the Senate’s own conventions and rules — conventions and rules that apply once a Senator is already a sitting member.
He does not deal with the rather different obligations of the Prime Minister in recommending people to serve in the Senate.
There is a strong case to be made that the Prime Minister must meet a much higher and more rigorous legal and constitutional standard.
The plain words of the Constitution are that any Senator must “be resident” of the province he or she represents and the Prime Minister is sworn to uphold the Constitution.
If Stephen Harper really believes that it is enough for him that a prospective Senator merely own $4,000 worth of property in a province to be considered a “resident” of that province, he has never said so.
In fact, although this Prime Minister has made passing reference to the eligibility criteria for Senators, he has never specifically said what he believes those to be, particularly as concerns residency.
And so, on the face of it, it looks like Stephen Harper willfully ignored the very clear and simple constitutional residency provision when he appointed Duffy and Wallin.
After Monday’s revelations it sounds like, more than ever, that in this whole affair, with its many and arcane aspects, the buck stops — with a loud and resounding thud — at the desk of Stephen Harper.