The RCMP has laid criminal charges as part of its probe into senators’ expenses, ensuring the controversy over the conduct of Canada’s unappointed legislators will continue for months to come.
The Senate scandal has already damaged the Conservative brand and overshadowed the government’s political agenda, and the new charges expected to drag the matter into 2015, an election year.
Retired Liberal senator Mac Harb and suspended senator Patrick Brazeau, who was appointed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, were charged with fraud and breach of trust in relation to their housing and living expenses on Tuesday. Mr. Harb’s lawyer said his client will plead not guilty, predicting the legal battle could take at least a year.
The RCMP made it clear that other matters remain under investigation, including expense claims of suspended senator Pamela Wallin and a $90,000 payment from the Prime Minister’s former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, to repay expense claims of suspended senator Mike Duffy. Both well-known former broadcasters were appointed to the Senate as Conservatives by Mr. Harper, who has tried to contain the crisis by pointing repeatedly to his firing of Mr. Wright.
Still, the controversy over the Upper Chamber is bound to grow, with the Auditor-General investigating senators’ spending and the Supreme Court weighing in on the legality of the Conservative plans to reform the Senate.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau ousted all senators from his parliamentary caucus last week. Meanwhile, the NDP is hoping the issue will fuel its campaign for abolition of the Senate, while reminding Canadians of the disgraced senators’ political affiliations.
Announcing the charges in Ottawa, Assistant Commissioner Gilles Michaud of the RCMP’s National Division said the investigation into the Senate is not finished.
“I can assure you that we continue our work on other significant files,” he said, refusing to take questions. “RCMP investigators continue to explore multiple leads to ascertain all of the facts and collect the evidence in support of these facts. We will update Canadians when our work is completed.”
The $90,000 payment to Mr. Duffy from Mr. Wright has proven to be the most politically charged element of the probe. According to RCMP documents filed in court, the transaction was discussed in the senior echelons of the Prime Minister’s Office and the Conservative Party.
Mr. Harper has repeatedly said the only two people responsible in the matter are Mr. Wright and Mr. Duffy, but the opposition has sought to find out exactly what the Prime Minister knew. Mr. Harper has said he was not informed about the payment Mr. Wright made, or that the Conservative Party had contemplated helping Mr. Duffy with a lower amount.
Assistant Commissioner Michaud said the investigation of Mr. Harb and Mr. Brazeau started in March, 2013, and that each will appear in court at a later date. “These investigations were detailed and involved careful consideration and examination of evidence,” he said, adding the investigation examined “housing and living expenses” and involved “dozens of individuals and witnesses.”
The two senators had billed taxpayers for “secondary” residences in the Ottawa area that are alleged to be their primary homes.
Mr. Harb maintains his innocence.
“We’re obviously disappointed the charges were laid, but he’s always been prepared to co-operate with the investigation. And, given that the charges are now laid, he’s looking forward to a chance to go to court and respond to them,” Mr. Harb’s lawyer, Sean May, said in an interview.
Mr. Brazeau has regularly maintained his innocence, but could not be reached for comment.
The RCMP investigated allegations of mortgage fraud against Mr. Harb, but the evidence did not support a charge, Assistant Commissioner Michaud said.