The Prime Minister can feel relief that his former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, won't be charged with a crime in the Senate scandal. But he should keep the celebrations to a chastened minimum.
The RCMP has decided to drop its investigation into Mr. Wright, because what he did – writing a $90,000 cheque to secretly cover Senator Mike Duffy's expenses – isn't a crime.
Even without a charge, the RCMP investigation provided a valuable public service, pulling back the veil on some unseemly behaviour in the Prime Minister's Office and the Conservative Senate caucus. The public has learned important facts about those ethical lapses, and now it seems likely we'll learn there are gaps in the ethics rules that govern them.
Mr. Harper will know it's not completely over. There are still other Senate-scandal probes, including the RCMP's investigation of Mr. Duffy, and presumably inquiries into the actions of Mr. Wright and other by the ethics commissioner and the Senate's ethics officer.
Mr. Wright isn't likely to face further sanction, however.
He declared, through his lawyer, that he was vindicated by the RCMP's decision; he wrote a cheque to repay taxpayers and serve the public interest. In the lengthy document that an RCMP investigator filed in court, Mr. Wright came across as frustrated by Mr. Duffy, and eager to just make the whole thing to go away.
But senators aren't charities, and making a secret payment to one isn't a mark of altruism. It's a sign of a cover-up. The Conservatives were desperately trying to convince the public that Senator Duffy had paid his own deeply questionable tab, and quash blame for inappropriate expenses, to spare the blushes of the man who appointed him, Mr. Harper. Mr. Wright's cheque was meant to hide the truth.
To the average Canadian, it's pretty obvious that no one should be allowed to make a secret $90,000 gift to a legislator. How can it pass muster, if it doesn't pass the smell test?
In the case of the RCMP investigation, Mr. Wright was never likely to be charged. As several lawyers noted, his actions didn't have the elements of a crime because the RCMP hadn't established that he was buying something from Senator Duffy with his $90,000.
The RCMP initially alleged that Mr. Wright had committed bribery, fraud on the government, and breach of trust, but to be found guilty of those crimes, you have to be paying an official to do something. It appears only thing Mr. Wright wanted Senator Duffy to do in exchange for the money was to stay quiet about it. (Which he didn't do very well.) There NDP complains that the RCMP should have charged Mr. Wright for violating the Parliament of Canada Act – but that, too, would require paying a senator for "services rendered."
What about the rules and laws of ethics for people in public office? An ethics inquiry is expected, but the catch is that those rules are focused on officials who receive money, rather than someone giving it.
According to the Senate's ethics code, Senator Duffy, like every other senator was supposed to declare any gift he received – and he wasn't supposed to accept any gift related to his role as a senator, which Mr. Wright's cheque was. For that matter, he shouldn't have accepted undeclared sums from the Conservative Party of Canada Fund – controlled by another senator, Irving Gerstein – to cover his legal fees.
But it's Mr. Duffy who bore that responsibility. Though Mr. Wright was a public officer holder should have known a senator is not allowed to accept a secret $90,000 gift, the ethics rules don't bar Mr. Wright from giving a senator a gift he's not allowed to accept.
Perhaps that's a moot point now. Mr. Wright had to step down from his job anyway.
There will be other probes into the scandal. For Mr. Harper, there's no longer a suggeston of crime in his office, but still further potential for embarassment.
We already know, courtesy of the RCMP, that there were elaborate schemes by aides and senators to help senators avoid blame for inappropriate expenses. And if a secret $90,000 to a senator doesn't run afoul of Ottawa's ethics rules, we'll also know something's wrong with those rules.
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