Bruised by the controversy over improper expense claims, Conservative Senators are fighting back – trying to redirect the spotlight onto their Liberal rivals in the Red Chamber.
Vern White, a former Ottawa police chief appointed to the Senate by Stephen Harper last year, has written a letter to the Senate Ethics officer asking her to investigate a $1.7-million offshore trust that media reports say names Liberal Senator Pana Merchant as a beneficiary.
CBC recently reported that this trust had been set up in the Cook Islands by Ms. Merchant’s husband, class-action lawyer Tony Merchant.
The news agency said the information came from a big leak of offshore financial information obtained by an international consortium of journalists.
Mr. White said in a statement that he has asked Lyse Ricard, the Senate Ethics Officer, to verify whether the trust exists, or did exist, and to consider whether the chamber’s ethics code contains sufficient guidelines to address such matters.
“Given the nature of offshore trusts, often set up as tax havens, this story raises serious questions under the Conflict of Interest Code for Senators,” the Ontario senator said.
The Conservatives have been hurt by a growing scandal over illegitimate expense claims by senators, including three appointed by Mr. Harper.
Senator Mike Duffy is now the subject of a reopened probe by the Senate’s internal economy committee which stands accused of whitewashing its last report on the PEI politician’s housing expense claims.
The PMO was dragged into the controversy after revelations that Mr. Harper’s chief of staff Nigel Wright dipped into his personal fortune to bail out Mr. Duffy because the senator had to repay $90,172 in improperly-expensed claims. Mr. Wright has since resigned.
Pamela Wallin, another Harper Senate appointee, is currently being audited for travel expense claims she made.
“Recent coverage of Senators under investigation for a variety of improprieties demonstrates the need for tough reforms as well as Senators holding each other to a higher standard,” Mr. White said in a statement.
“Many in the Senate are encouraging reforms to better improve our accountability and transparency. I would hope that Senator Merchant provides clarity to the issue at hand,” he said.
On May 21, the federal Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner launched a formal investigation of Mr. Wright’s $90,172 gift to Mr. Duffy.
The Senate Ethics Officer is reviewing the transaction and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are reviewing expense claims paid out to several senators to see whether an investigation is warranted.
Senator Patrick Brazeau, another Harper appointee, and Mac Harb, appointed to the Senate by former Liberal prime minister Jean Chretien, are also facing scrutiny over expenses.
There are currently 60 Conservative Senators in the Red Chamber as well as 35 Liberal Senators and seven independents.