Mike Duffy was the nerve centre of Parliament Hill.
In the years before his appointment to the Senate, the CTV journalist was the first to host a daily political supper-hour show from the House of Commons foyer. It is the heart of the action where politicians scrum and is just one floor down from the Prime Minister’s Office. Cabinet ministers would stop by on their way in and out of the House of Commons, and his early-generation BlackBerry was constantly buzzing.
“What are you hearing?” was Mr. Duffy’s go-to line to anyone walking by his set. The Mike Duffy of the mid-2000s would have enjoyed covering a good Senate scandal.
Now the former journalist finds himself as far away from the action as possible, announcing his resignation from the Conservative caucus while staying at the Prince Edward Island cottage that is at the core of his current troubles.
On Friday, Mr. Duffy’s troubles deepened as the Conservative majority said it plans to send his expenses back for more study by a committee in light of allegations he may have billed the Senate while doing both personal and political work. To make matters worse for the Tories, Senator Pamela Wallin said Friday she will resign from the Conservative caucus and sit as an independent until an audit of her travel expenses is complete.
The government’s plan is clearly to distance itself from Mr. Duffy and deflect questions regarding the $90,000 gift from the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Nigel Wright, that Mr. Duffy used to repay expenses that were improperly claimed. Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson is looking into the issue, the government points out.
“Obviously there’s some outstanding questions and our office is in contact with the Office of the Ethics Commissioner for one angle and Senator Duffy has some questions to answer, but he’ll answer those as an independent senator now,” said the Prime Minister’s spokesperson, Andrew MacDougall.
In other words, Mr. Duffy, 66, is suddenly on the outside looking in.
A prominent Chrétien-era Liberal strategist, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was “always an open secret that Mike was lobbying for the Senate,” even back in the Mulroney era. But it was the Tories, not the Liberals, who appointed him to the Senate in 2008. And Mr. Duffy instantly became a high-profile fundraiser for the Harper Tories. In June, 2009, he hosted a town hall event featuring Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his “Economic Action Plan,” and he’s been appearing at partisan fundraisers ever since.
The consummate Ottawa insider got his start in broadcasting as a DJ at CKDH, a radio station in Amherst, N.S., and called himself the “Round Mound of Sound.” He worked at CHNS in Halifax and broke stories covering Halifax city hall and the legislature. In 1969, he joined a CTV affiliate in Montreal and then went to Ottawa and Parliament Hill with the CHUM group. In 1974, he joined CBC radio and then The National. In 1988, he returned to CTV and became the host of Sunday Edition.
It was in 1999 that Mr. Duffy was named Ottawa Editor at CTV Newsnet and began appearing daily from Parliament Hill. A year after his appointment, in October, 2000, he was charged and pleaded guilty to driving with more than the legal limit of alcohol in his bloodstream. He was fined $600 and his driver’s licence was suspended.
Mr. Duffy told The Globe in 2007 that as a youngster he participated in “a lot of sports and wasn’t fat.” But his girth expanded as his career did, fuelled by “constant insecurity” and bad habits. Ann Medina, a CBC correspondent from 1975 to 1988, recalled that Mr. Duffy was not what she termed “a gentleman journalist” content to sit in the office watching a federal-provincial conference on the monitor. “He was out there, up until midnight or 1:00 in the morning, calling, drinking, whatever, with any of the premier’s aides he could get a hold of, digging, digging, digging. The next morning … he’d pigeonhole anybody going into [the building where the meeting was held] that he could get information from and freeze his ass in the frigid Ottawa winter.”
Mr. Duffy has never given any indication of financial trouble, though the PMO has suggested that one of the reasons Mr. Wright stepped in to help him is because the senator was facing financial difficulties.
During his time as a political journalist at CTV, Mr. Duffy earned more than $200,000 a year, plus a clothing allowance, sources said. He was also known for butting heads with bosses over high expense claims.
As a senator, Mr. Duffy receives an annual salary of $135,200. He will not qualify for any Senate pension unless he stays in the position until Jan. 2, 2015, his six-year anniversary. Should he remain in the Senate until he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 75, he will qualify for an indexed pension of $58,264, according to calculations by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.
While some senators sit on corporate boards, Mr. Duffy does not, but he does work in “media consulting and public speaking” as the director and president of Mike Duffy Media Services, according to Senate records. One long-time associate said: “Mike can’t possibly be broke. … He was always pretty smart about where he put his money.”
The release of the Duffy audit created a stir among Conservative MPs and senators. And the revelation of Mr. Wright’s generous cheque came as a surprise, given that Mr. Wright and Mr. Duffy were not known to be close friends. It also came at a time when some in the Conservative caucus are pushing back at the powers of the PMO.
“When the executive – and PMO is the head of the executive – gets involved in matters of legislators, that’s a problem and to me that’s a concern,” said Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber, who is among a group of MPs pushing for Parliament to be more independent of the PMO.
Meanwhile, Mr. Duffy remains holed up in his Cavendish cottage. When asked via e-mail on Friday whether he would speak to The Globe, he replied: “No.” The one-storey building is modest, but the view is breathtaking – looking across the the Gulf of St. Lawrence over an expanse of Cavendish Beach, filled with grasses and sand dunes. On Friday, police checked the identification of a CTV News crew there and asked them to stay off the Duffy property.
On the streets of PEI, where islanders once stuck up for one of their own, the tide appears to be shifting.
Islanders interviewed this week say they are embarrassed and disgusted with Mr. Duffy’s behaviour. The widely held view is that Mr. Duffy is not from the island, something that the senator denies. In an unscientific poll in the Charlottetown Guardian this week, 93 per cent of readers said Mr. Duffy should resign.
“He’s not from here,” said John Houston, a retired Islander, adding that Mr. Duffy should quit the Senate entirely. “It was disappointing that he would do something like that.”