The Senate will be in a position to turf three of its own members as early as Tuesday, fulfilling the Prime Minister’s wish for sharp sanctions against the former members of his caucus engulfed in a spending scandal.
The political headache will not disappear as quickly, however, as competing versions of events continue to emerge over the $90,000 bailout of Senator Mike Duffy by Stephen Harper’s former chief of staff, Nigel Wright.
Senate officials said the motion to suspend Mr. Duffy, Patrick Brazeau and Pamela Wallin for the ongoing session will likely go to a vote late on Tuesday. If the motion passes as expected, the senators will not receive any salary for the next two years, but, in a compromise aimed at winning broader support in the Conservative caucus, will still be eligible for medical benefits.
The Conservatives are planning to invoke closure on Monday in order to put an end to the opposition’s procedural moves that have delayed the vote by a week.
While the Senate is ready to take actions against its own members, the House of Commons will remain the theatre of a heated debate over the Conservative Party’s handling of the controversy.
At a Conservative convention over the weekend, Senator Irving Gerstein distanced himself from plans to pay back taxpayers on behalf of Mr. Duffy by using the party’s war chest.
“I made it absolutely clear to Nigel Wright that the CFC [Conservative Fund Canada] would not pay for Senator Mike Duffy’s disputed expenses,” said the Conservative Party’s chief fundraiser. “And it never did.”
In a statement to the RCMP earlier this year, however, Mr. Wright’s lawyers said there had been a plan to use the Conservative Fund to cover Mr. Duffy’s disputed expenses, when the amount owing was estimated at $32,000. Mr. Wright told the Mounties that he decided to use his own money when the amount rose to $90,000 and the fund would no longer participate.
In his statement, Mr. Gerstein didn’t comment on the allegation that the party had originally planned to repay Mr. Duffy’s expenses, fuelling questions about the actual discussions that took place in Conservative backrooms.
The Prime Minister’s Office did not provide further clarity on Sunday, stating that Mr. Harper was unaware of the scheme.
Through his lawyer, Mr. Wright said he had “no comment at this time to the latest characterization of the events.”
The NDP said it will try to get a clearer sense of events during Question Period this week, accusing the Conservatives of trying to cover up embarrassing audits into the expenses of senators.
“There is a swamp of contradictions, mistruths and half-truths coming out of this government,” NDP MP Peter Julian said in an interview.
In a speech to the Senate last week, Mr. Duffy raised a series of questions about who else knew about the payout and the intentions of the people involved in the transaction, including the decision to use the Conservative Fund to reimburse his legal expenses of $13,000. In addition, Mr. Harper said last week that he dismissed Mr. Wright, after originally stating last spring that Mr. Wright had resigned.
Mr. Harper left little doubt in his speech to the Conservative convention on Friday about his wishes for the three independent senators, whom he originally appointed as members of his caucus. Mr. Harper said “he couldn’t care less” what critics – including members of his own party – think of the move to turf the senators, calling for “serious sanction” in response to the alleged wrongdoing.
The three senators targeted by the motion could use the remaining hours of debate to speak in the Senate, although Ms. Wallin is vowing to stay silent after the RCMP confirmed that it is investigating her case on Friday.
“We hope the Senate will now, at least, exhibit a similar respect and will suspend their proceedings until the investigation … has been completed,” said Ms. Wallin’s lawyer, Terrence O’Sullivan.
It remains unknown whether Mr. Brazeau or Mr. Duffy – who is on medical leave – will return to the Red Chamber in a last-ditch attempt to fight their suspensions.
At the convention, Mr. Gerstein defended his decision to use the Conservative war chest to cover some of Mr. Duffy’s legal fees, insisting it was standard protocol.
“At the request of Nigel Wright, the fund did agree to pay legal fees limited to a maximum $12,000 plus HST, because at the time Senator Duffy was a member of the Conservative caucus,” he said.
Mr. Gerstein, best known in Canada as the former president of Peoples Jewellers, said the Tories have $14-million in the bank and remain debt-free. Donations to political parties are tax deductible.