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Politics Duffy trial could go long, judge warns, even into 2016

Suspended senator Mike Duffy arrives to the courthouse in Ottawa on Tuesday, April 14, 2015.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The prime minister's former chief of staff Nigel Wright once referred to the Mike Duffy affair as "Chinese water torture." It appears the drip, drip, drip of information at Duffy's trial will spill over its scheduled end date.

That could mean many things — including days in court this summer, in the orbit of the election campaign, or even an extension of the case into 2016.

The longer the trial goes, the better the chance that the details of the Auditor General's forensic audit of all senators, due in June, could be referenced in court.

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The suspended senator and former Conservative faces 31 counts of fraud, breach of trust and bribery, all related to expenses and contracts he signed.

Ontario court Justice Charles Vaillancourt finally said Wednesday what many in the courtroom had been guessing about since last week.

"I don't see us completing our task in the assigned number of days," Vaillancourt said.

The trial was originally scheduled to run until June 19, with a break from May 13 to May 31 while one of the Crown prosecutors deals with pre-trial responsibilities in another case.

But seven days into the process, only two witnesses have taken the stand, even though dozens are expected to testify.

Defence lawyer Donald Bayne is going deep into Senate's often broad rules and procedures with each witness, trying to demonstrate his client operated within the lines. The Crown has had about three hours of questions through the entire stretch.

The likelihood of more days simply getting tacked on in June and July is unclear. All players in the trial must look at their timetables, and there must be room in the Ottawa courthouse.

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There are more challenges when looking at the fall schedule. Crown Prosecutor Mark Holmes is booked to work a murder trial.

October is the time foreseen for the trial of former Liberal Senator Mac Harb, who is also facing charges of fraud and breach of trust in relation to his living expenses.

Wednesday, Bayne continued a second day of cross-examination of Senate human resources officer Sonia Makhlouf, who has testified there was no after-the-fact oversight over contracts awarded by senators.

A set of charges that Duffy faces relate to $65,000 in contracts awarded to friend Gerald Donohue. Some of that money subsequently filtered down to other service providers, including an office volunteer and a makeup artist.

Bayne drew attention to the fact that the contracts in question were put in place before the Senate tightened some of its procurement policies in 2011.

Before then, senators could arrange purchases under $2,500 without a contract. After the changes in 2011, officials said senators could make their own arrangements only "in emergency situations."

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"But this provision didn't apply to Sen. Duffy's contracting and to the other 104 senators at the time that we're considering, right?" Bayne asked Makhlouf.

"Yes," she replied.

The court also reviewed evidence that the Senate's human resources department gave Duffy advice on how to pay Donohue even though the contract was set up after the work had been done.

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