Senator Mike Duffy broke his silence in a lengthy speech to the Senate, saying Prime Minister Stephen Harper ordered him to repay questionable housing expenses during a private meeting the two had with Nigel Wright last February.
The allegation is the first time the three men have been placed alone in the same room in connection with the Senate expenses affair. The Prime Minister’s Office maintains that Mr. Wright, then chief of staff, acted alone when he gave Mr. Duffy $90,000 to pay back expense claims that were under investigation.
Mr. Duffy said Tuesday he met privately with Mr. Harper and Mr. Wright – “just the three of us” – after a caucus meeting on Feb. 13 where he insisted that he had not broken any rules. Listen to Mr. Duffy's speech to the Senate.
“But the Prime Minister wasn’t interested in explanations or the truth: It’s not about what you did. It’s about the perception of what you did that has been created by the media. The rules are inexplicable to our base,” Mr. Duffy said.
A request to the Prime Minister’s Office for more information about that meeting was not answered Tuesday evening.
Mr. Duffy made the speech during a contentious debate over Conservative motions to suspend him and two other senators without pay. The debate lasted for more than three hours on Tuesday afternoon and is expected to continue on Wednesday.
After his meeting with Mr. Harper and Mr. Wright, Mr. Duffy said the PMO “piled on the pressure,” to repay his expenses. Eventually, he said he was told he could be ejected from the Senate if he did not comply. When he said he did not have the money, Mr. Wright offered to pay, he said.
In May, Mr. Duffy said he was called at his residence in PEI by Senator Marjory LeBreton, then the government leader in the Senate, and Ray Novak, who took over as chief of staff after Mr. Wright’s resignation. Mr. Duffy said Ms. LeBreton told him if he didn’t resign from the Conservative caucus in the next 90 minutes he would be kicked out of caucus and could be booted from the Senate entirely.
The former broadcast journalist was appointed to the Red Chamber by Mr. Harper and was once considered a top asset to the Conservative Party who spoke frequently at fundraisers and political events. Two other Harper appointees, Senators Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau, are also facing possible suspensions in the Senate over their expense claims.
Claude Carignan, the government leader in the Senate, said he believes the senators should be suspended from the Red Chamber for what he called “gross negligence” in managing parliamentary resources. “They threaten the dignity and the integrity of the Senate,” he said during a speech that lasted more than an hour. “It is not our money we are dealing with; it is the money of the public.”
Mr. Brazeau was critical of Mr. Carignan’s speech, suggesting the government leader was taking more time to speak than he and other senators facing suspension motions would be allowed. “I guess the Senate is in fact where due process goes to die,” he said.
The proposed suspensions could be precedent-setting for the Red Chamber. Only one senator, former Liberal Andrew Thompson, has been suspended without pay in the past, and that happened after he failed to show up for nearly two consecutive legislative sessions. He later resigned.
James Cowan, the Liberal leader in the Senate, said he wants to see the entire matter referred to a committee, where he said it could be dealt with more fully, a suggestion Mr. Duffy said he would support.
Several senators have expressed concern that the suspensions may go too far and would not give the senators an adequate opportunity to defend themselves. Both Conservative and Liberal senators will be allowed to vote according to their consciences on the proposed suspensions, their leaders said on Tuesday.
If approved, the suspensions would remain in effect until the current legislative session ends or the Senate votes to reverse them. The senators would be barred from collecting their salaries, living and travel allowances, and from using Senate resources during that time.