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How I Think a Simple Senate Expense Issue Became a Scandal

Wednesday’s ITO released by the RCMP has tossed the cat among the pigeons and there is a lot of talk about who knew or did what. Lots of questions are being asked based on digging into the ITO and parsing this sentence in that email or interpreting what another series of emails might mean.

For me, the real question is how did we get from a relatively simple issue of a senator making what are now revealed to be improper expense claims to this squalid dog and pony show?

If there was ever an example of poor issues management, surely to God this has to be it!

Before I get into what I believe happened; a disclaimer. I don’t know what happened. None of us do, with the possible exception of the participants and I’m not convinced all of them even know the whole story. Regardless of where this ends up, nobody has been charged with a crime and everyone involved has the right to presumption of innocence until it is proven otherwise in a court of law.

Even the Prime Minister has that right although he has proven to be somewhat casual about respecting the same right for others.

I want to talk about how I think we got from ‘there’ to ‘here’ because I don’t believe we needed to be ‘here’ to begin with. Unfortunately, in politics, nothing is ever done simply if it can be made overly complex.

I believe that when it became known that Mike Duffy’s expenses were being audited, the original response was not to worry too much about it. I base that on Wright’s emails to Duffy reassuring him that it would all work out and that the entire issue was nothing but a smear job. That worry increased only after it became clear that the audit was potentially going to reveal some troubling and questionable claims made by Duffy.

You might ask ‘so what?’ and it’s a good question – one I asked myself. Why not let the facts come out and leave Duffy to deal with it. I believe the government was concerned because Duffy had asked for clarification about his living arrangements at the time he was appointed and it was the government that told him that his cottage was all that he required to establish residency in PEI.

That kind of thing might lead to some uncomfortable criticism in the media about playing footloose and fancy free with senate requirements and politicians hate uncomfortable media coverage. This was articulated in an email on February 15 in which Nigel Wright wrote that they resolve the growing scandal

“in a way that does not lead to the Chinese water torture of new facts in the public domain, that the PM does not want.” 

“So I think they decided to try and help themselves by helping Duffy. If they could get Duffy’s expenses covered, then he would stop trying to publicly justify his “entitlements’ and blaming the Prime Minister and the PMO for the situation.

For his part, I believe the Prime Minister when he says that he issued instructions for Mike Duffy to repay his expenses. I base that on his own unequivocal statements about the one meeting he had with Duffy and quite frankly, I don’t see any reason for him to lie about it.

The problem was that Duffy didn’t have the money to repay the claims and that’s when ‘managing’ the issue became more important than simply accepting the situation as it is and dealing with it.

I happen to believe that Nigel Wright is a principled and ethical person who got caught up in a highly unethical situation, much of which was of his own making. I base my belief in his character on statements made about him by people I respect like Preston Manning, Jason Kenney and Brett Wilson (formerly of Dragon’s Den). and on the fact that he never once submitted a claim for any expenses to which he was legitimately entitled. I also believe he set out with the best intentions to resolve the issue by finding the money to help Duffy repay his expenses. This would make sure that taxpayers were not out of pocket and that Mike Duffy would not point fingers at the Prime Minister.

Enter Senator Irving Gerstein, who is in charge of the Conservative Party Fund.

Based on emails in the ITO, it appears that Senator Gerstein agreed to have the fund repay Duffy’s expenses and even offered to approach the independent auditors to see if he could have the audit quashed.

That is when I think Nigel Wright felt he had it all together and was ready to resolve the issue based on approval from the Boss – Stephen Harper. I believe it was that plan which I call Plan A that Stephen Harper knew about and approved. I don’t believe for a minute that neither Senator Gerstein nor Nigel Wright would have made a decision to repay Duffy’s expense from the Conservative Party Fund without the Prime Mnister’s authorization. Bot men report directly to him when it comes to the fund.

I also base my belief  not only the emails in the ITO but also on the fact that while Stephen Harper has always been quite definite in his denial of any knowledge of the $90, 000 cheque, he has equivocated when asked if he knew about Plan A. He has been asked in Question Period but refused to answer or has deflected the question to a different issue just as he did yesterday when he was again asked by reporters if he knew about and had approved the expenses being repaid from the Conservative Party Fund.

Frequently, when politicians refuse to give a straight answer it is because they are trying to avoid lying about a truth they don’t want to reveal.

The auditors were not prepared to quash the audit and released a draft to the Senate’s Internal Board of Economy which advised the PMO that Duffy’s expenses were three times greater than originally thought.

Exit Senator Irving Gerstein and the Conservative Party Fund checkbook and that’s when I believe Plan B was developed.

The first step in Plan B was to get the Senate’s Internal Board of Economy to soften the language in the audit and the second was to find a new source of money to repay Duffy’s expenses. By this time, the circle of those who were aware of the issue had grown to include Senators Gerstein, Lebreton, Tkachuk and Stewart Olsen; the PMO’s lawyer Benjamin Perrin and various staff of the PMO and some senators.

Again, based on the email traffic contained in the ITO, there was quite a bit of back and forth in attempt by the PMO to get specific senators to soften the language in Duffy’s audit. Not everyone was prepared to play ball including the Clerk of the Privy Council and in particular, Chris Montgomery, a conservative staffer.

Montgomery tried to get the PMO to respect the autonomy of senate committees and ignored instructions to monitor Duffy. In the evidence set out in the ITO with regards to Chris Montgomery:

“He gave advice to senators (Carolyn) Stewart Olsen and (David) Tkachuk not to amend the report as they had an obligation to the Senate to give a rationale for having reclaimed the money from Duffy,”

The PMO was less concerned with the ethics of what it was demanding than it was with criticizing those who stood in the way.

“I am in a meeting with Montgomery, LeBreton, (LeBreton staffer) Sandy (Melo), CSO (Stewart Olsen). This is epic. Montgomery is the Problem,” Patrick Rogers, the prime minister’s manager of parliamentary affairs, wrote to Wright.

“Chris simply does not believe in our goal of circling the wagons,” Wright complained in an email about Montgomery.

And there is the key for me. This was not about doing the ‘right’ thing; it was about “circling the wagons” to try and achieve the expedient thing.

Eventually, Wright made the decision to cover the $90,000 himself which has been admitted by him and the Prime Minister. I believe the Prime Minister when he states that he had no prior knowledge of Wright’s intention. In fact, I believe that very few people knew based on the fact that so many prominent conservative MPs stood in the House of Commons to defend Duffy for having repaid the expenses.

I also believe there was a deliberate attempt to try and cover up where the money to repay the expenses was coming from. I base that on the fact that the cheque that was issued does not have Nigel Wright’s name on it and was paid to an account at the Royal Bank rather than directly to Mike Duffy. Why?

I believe it was to create a cover story that Mike Duffy had taken out a loan from the bank to repay his expenses; a story that was repeated by many prominent Conservative MPs who did not know any different. In other words, I believe it was a deliberate attempt at deception.

When it hit the fan in May, I believe it caught the Prime Minister by complete surprise but he tried to defend this serious breach of ethics and it was only after five days of constant hammering by the Opposition that he ‘reluctantly’ accepted the resignation of Nigel Wright.

It might have ended there although probably not without a few more weeks of discomfort but they couldn’t leave well enough alone. After a long summer break, the Prime Minister pushed to have Senators Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau suspended without pay from the Senate. I don’t believe this had anything to do with ethics and everything to do with trying to make the growing scandal go away.

By this time, I believe the Prime Minister knew everything that had happened. It defies logic that having been put in an awkward position by his former Chief of Staff he wouldn’t have demanded full disclosure from all involved.

I believe it was his decision to push to have the senators removed from the senate without regard for due process or presumption of innocence and I believe he has not been forthcoming about what he knew about Plan A.

Whether or not any of that rises to a level of criminality is not for me to decide or say but it certainly calls ethics and accountability into question.

All of this was done to end up precisely where we would have been if the original decision had been to leave Mike Duffy to face the consequences of his actions when the audit was first initiated. Instead, as many as fifteen senior conservatives got involved in trying to smooth the issue and in the end have accomplished little except to make an uncomfortable situation a breach of ethical standards that according to the RCMP may rise to a level of criminality. They turned a nickle and dime issue into a full-blown scandal with a unnecessarily desperate attempt to manipulate, compromise and obfuscate the truth.

There are two problems in all of this for me. First, I find it troubling that the PMO now feels it can order about other branches of government even when it is pointed out to them that it is a constitutional breach of the separation of powers. The concentration of power in one office is a dangerous threat to democracy that we have seen too often in the past. The other issue is that, whether or not it was originally intended, there has simply been too much deception including a deliberate attempt to mislead taxpayers by trying to influence the whitewashing of Mike Duffy’s audit report.  That is not the transparency that this government promised.

And that, my friends, has not only undermined the conservative brand but depending on what may yet come out; may well prove to be fatal to it.

An Alternate Opinion  Based on the Same Available Information

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© 2013 Maggie’s Bear

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  • Barb Gulka

    People never lie so much as after a hunt, during a war or before an election.
    -Otto von Bismarck
    I believe we are embedded in all three…..’the hunt’, ‘a war’ and just before an election! ….. and the PC’s are loosing ground very quickly. If Harper is lying it will rise to the surface soon enough, if he isn’t, all the talk about him being such a control freak will be proven untrue (and the pundits will have to come up with another handle) because obviously he did not have control over the most important part of his government……his own office staff!…. and that begs another question, is he really a capable politician to lead this country? I find it difficult to wrap my mind around the future possibilities for Canada!

    • MaggiesBear

      We are walking down the same road Barb. Regardless of who did what in this mess, the wheels are coming off and the conservative brand is being tarnished and losing its glow.What angers me is that it didn’t have to happen but there are too many who support the individual rather than the party and our values. That’s how our values get eroded and that’s how we eventually lose the trust the electorate placed in us to govern.

      The electorate reaches a point where it isn’t just about the economy.

  • SDC

    This has been my thinking all along, Maggie, and I’d like to thank you for laying it out so clearly. If there’s one thing that most Canadians know, even instinctively, it’s that politicians don’t fart, sneeze, or roll over in bed without running through the pluses and minuses, and the possible repercussions. In that light, the PM knew about this botched plan to gloss over an embarrassment just as surely as McGuinty knew about the real costs of cancelling the gas plants, and Chretien knew about what was really going on in Adscam, but NONE of them ever thought any of it would ever come to light. By trying to claim that he knew nothing about this in the beginning, he has locked himself into trying to sell that story to a population that is never going to buy it.

  • Bert_1

    I wish they would write those ITO’s in english…

    • MaggiesBear

      I hear you. I used to deal a lot with contracts before I retired. I had to learn a third language – legalize. It’s a language that is more boring and obscure than Latin and which apparently has little to no punctuation. I used to hate reviewing contracts pretty much as much as I used to hate math class when I was in school