OTTAWA - The RCMP have charged Sen. Mike Duffy with 31 counts of fraud, breach of trust and bribery in connection with the senator’s alleged misuse of taxpayers’ funds.
The charges, which came after months of investigation arising from the Senate spending scandal, were announced by Assistant RCMP Commissioner Gilles Michaud at a news conference in Ottawa on Thursday.
In an unexpected development, the RCMP charged Duffy with fraud, breach of trust and bribery of a judicial officer in connection with the $90,000 cheque that Nigel Wright, the former chief of staff in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s office, wrote for Duffy to pay the senator’s questionable expense claims.
Michaud did not take questions and there was no immediate information on which official Duffy is alleged to have attempted to bribe. Questions about the $90,000 cheque have swirled around Wright and Harper, who has said he knew nothing about Wright’s decision to pay Duffy. Wright, who quit the PMO after it became known that he had written the cheque, had also been investigated by the RCMP. But the police recently concluded there was no reason to charge Wright.
A spokesman for Harper called the behaviour described in the RCMP charges “disgraceful.”
“We have assisted the RCMP throughout their investigation, and congratulate them on the progress they have made,” Jason Macdonald said in a statement.
“Those who break the rules must suffer the consequences. The conduct described in the numerous charges against Mr. Duffy is disgraceful.”
“As this is now a criminal matter that is before the courts, we have nothing further to add.”
The Mounties also charged Duffy with fraud and breach of trust in relation to what they said were $90,000 in inappropriately claimed expenses that the senator for Prince Edward Island filed for his residency in Ottawa.
A further 18 charges were filed in relation to “expense claims unrelated to Senate business,” the police said. This concerned $50,000 in expenses for travel for “personal” or “partisan” reasons that had nothing to do with Duffy’s Senate duties, Michaud said.
Duffy faces another eight charges in connection with a separate alleged misuse of $60,000 in public funds for consulting contracts.
An RCMP investigator outlined suspicions in October that Duffy made payments to a former CTV pal under a contract the man said he did “little or no work” for.
Duffy will be in court on Sept. 16.
“Since the start of this investigation in 2013, a team of investigators from our sensitive and international investigations section poured over four years’ worth of expense claims, bank statements, phone records and thousands of emails,” Michaud told the media. “They interviewed numerous witnesses from British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Prince Edward Island.
“This investigation started as a referral into expense claims. Since then, investigators followed numerous leads and today’s charges are the result of a careful examination of the facts,” Michaud said.
Late Wednesday, Duffy lawyer Donald Bayne said in a statement that the RCMP had decided to lay charges. He insisted that his client did not commit a crime.
“We are confident that when the full story is told, as it will be, and shown to be supported by many forms of evidence, it will be clear that Sen. Duffy is innocent of any criminal wrong-doing,” Bayne said.
“Despite Sen. Duffy’s serious on-going health problems, which compromise his strength, and despite his limited resources, he intends to defend fully and fairly and to show that the truth and innocence are on his side,” Bayne said.
Duffy underwent a second open-heart surgery in late 2013 and continues to suffer from heart troubles, Bayne said.
Duffy was a high-profile television journalist before Harper named him to the red chamber in late 2008.
Duffy, along with other Harper appointees Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau, were suspended from the Senate in November, 2013 for up to two years for alleged spending infractions, losing their office perks and stripped of their $135,200-a-year salary.
Whether Duffy would face criminal charges in connection with demanding and accepting a $90,000 payment from Wright has been a hotly-debated question in Ottawa for months.
The unfolding of the Duffy-Wright affair is crucial political issue for the Harper government. Duffy — who claims he is innocent and was forced by the PMO to admit to “mistakes” in his expense claims — has reportedly suggested that his lawyers would call the prime minister to be a witness at any criminal trial.
In his earlier statement, Bayne questioned why Wright himself wasn’t facing charges related to the cheque.
“I am sure that I am not the only Canadian who will now wonder openly, how what was not a crime or bribe when Nigel Wright paid it on his own initiative, became however mysteriously, a crime or bribe when received by Sen. Duffy,” Bayne said.
“The evidence will show, that Sen. Duffy did not want to participate in Nigel Wright’s and the PMO’s repayment scenario, which they concocted for purely political purposes,” Bayne said.
The lawyer said Duffy is “thankful that the awful 16 months of waiting” is over. And he suggested that the senator has been the target of a witch hunt and “never had a fair hearing” in the Senate or in the media.
Duffy, who lives in Ottawa, was named to the Senate by Harper in 2008. The prime minister insisted last year he considered the P.E.I.-born Duffy eligible to hold the Maritimes seat, but he was embarrassed when news broke that Duffy had declared his “secondary” residence was in Ottawa so as to claim money to cover his housing expenses.
Harper and Wright said they insisted Duffy pay the money back.
According to emails obtained by the RCMP, Duffy complained he couldn’t afford to repay and the Conservative party briefly considered covering his costs but judged it too costly upon learning Duffy owed $90,000.
According to the RCMP, Wright then agreed to write Duffy a personal cheque to cover his costs as long as he stopped talking to the media about it, admitted to a mistake and ceased any further inappropriate claims. Wright resigned after CTV reported the payment.
Harper ordered his office to co-operate with the police investigation but has consistently denied any knowledge of Wright’s payment to Duffy and has publicly distanced himself from Wright.
- With files from The Canadian Press