The Conservative government leader in the Senate says he will discuss options for easing the proposed sanctions against three senators as he faces resistance within his caucus to the idea of lengthy suspensions without pay or benefits.
Claude Carignan said he will consult with Conservative senators in a closed-door meeting on Monday to determine if his motions to suspend the senators should be amended.
At least two Tory senators – Don Plett and Hugh Segal – and one MP spoke out publicly against the motions last week, saying the senators are being punished without being found guilty.
Pamela Wallin, Mike Duffy and Patrick Brazeau all face the threat of suspension without pay or benefits over what Mr. Carignan has characterized as “gross negligence” in their managing of parliamentary resources.
The allegations relate to tens of thousands of dollars in disputed expense claims.
Between four and seven Conservative senators in total have expressed reservations about the suspension motions, according to sources familiar with the matter. Some of the concerns include questions about whether the senators have been granted due process and a fear that the sanctions could interfere with a police investigation. Several also expressed concern that the suspensions would remove medical benefits for the senators, a source said. Now, lesser punishments are being considered – particularly for Ms. Wallin, a source familiar with the matter said.
Mr. Carignan said he does not envisage accepting suspensions with pay – calling it more of a reward than a sanction. He suggested the Senate will evaluate the situation of the three senators individually, meaning that the sanctions could vary based on last week’s statements, and any further comments on their part before the matter is put to a vote.
“We need to take stock of last week’s events, including what we heard from Patrick Brazeau, Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin, and ask ourselves if we are ready to modify certain sanctions,” he said.
On Friday afternoon, Mr. Brazeau accused the Senate leader of offering him a “backroom deal” involving a reduced punishment in exchange for a public apology. Mr. Carignan acknowledged the conversation took place but said he was simply trying to help Mr. Brazeau.
Sources familiar with the matter said there are likely two possibilities for lighter sanctions: the suspensions could be amended to allow the senators to keep their benefits, and they could be changed to reduce the length of time the senators are suspended without pay.
Ms. Wallin is best positioned to avoid the harsher punishment, one source said, in part because she was viewed as expressing contrition during a speech in the Senate chamber last week. In contrast, that source said, some Conservative senators felt that Mr. Duffy tried to deflect the blame for his actions on others during his speech in the Red Chamber last week, thus reducing the possibility that he could receive a lesser sanction.
The Conservative leadership in the Senate announced last week that it would move to impose a time limit on the suspension debates, which is expected to go to a vote on Tuesday. If that motion passes, the final vote on the proposed suspensions will likely take place before the Conservative convention, which starts at the end of the week.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has publicly advocated for the senators to be suspended without pay. On Sunday, the Prime Minister’s Office continued to insist that the senators should not be receiving a paycheque. “They know what they did is wrong, that’s why the Prime Minister supports the Senate motion and wants to see them vote on it,” spokesman Jason MacDonald wrote in an e-mail.
He said the PMO can’t comment on senators’ discussions about amending the sanctions. “What I can say is that we remain firm on this important point: Senators who have already been found to have claimed inappropriate expenses should not be collecting a public paycheque.”
Only a minority of senators are expected to attend the coming Conservative convention, a source said, in part because some feel they would not be welcomed by Conservative MPs who are angry about the expense scandal. Senators have also been informed that, if they do attend the convention, they should not seek reimbursement for the trip because there is concern about the optics of doing so at a time when the Red Chamber is under intense scrutiny.
Mr. Plett, a former president of the Conservative Party, said last week that he does not believe the Senate is giving Mr. Duffy, Mr. Brazeau and Ms. Wallin due process and would like to see an amendment to the proposed sanctions. Asked about Mr. Carignan’s comments, Mr. Plett said he’s pleased to see there may be some flexibility on the motions.
“I’m very happy and I certainly hope whatever changes he’s planning on proposing are changes that we can all live with,” Mr. Plett said. “I want to come out of this process unified, and I know Senator Carignan does as well.”
All three senators facing suspension motions are under investigation by the RCMP in connection with their expense claims. A fourth, former Liberal Senator Mac Harb, quit the Senate in August and is also under investigation. None have been charged.
With a report from Jane Taber in Halifax