The RCMP have laid 31 criminal charges against suspended Senator Mike Duffy, levelling accusations of misspending by a Conservative appointee to the Red Chamber that will dog Stephen Harper as he prepares to fight an election in 2015.
In a curious twist, the RCMP is charging Mr. Duffy with bribery over the $90,000 he received from former Harper chief of staff Nigel Wright to pay back improperly claimed expenses – even though the Mounties failed to charge the ex-aide for writing the cheque.
Mr. Duffy's lawyer is threatening to drag the Prime Minister's Office back into the matter by showing that PMO officials coerced the senator into accepting the money, which was used to reimburse taxpayers. It's possible Mr. Harper himself could face pressure to give testimony, legal experts say.
The Duffy investigation began with a probe of housing allowance claims for an Ottawa home that the senator said was not his primary residence but the RCMP alleges was in fact his main dwelling.
It grew far beyond that, Assistant Commissioner Gilles Michaud of the RCMP's National Division said Thursday, to include expenses charged to taxpayers for personal or party-related travel, the awarding of consultant contracts where funds were allegedly used for personal gain, and the circumstances under which the senator asked for, and received, $90,000 from Mr. Wright.
The charges Mr. Duffy faces include 15 counts of fraud for amounts totalling more than $200,000, 15 counts of breach of trust and one count of bribery.
The PEI senator will appear in an Ottawa court Sept. 16 on the matter, but a trial could take until the fall of 2015 to begin. The next federal election is scheduled for October, 2015, under the terms of a fixed election act, although Mr. Harper could call one earlier if he chose.
The PMO worked to distance itself Thursday from Mr. Duffy, whom Mr. Harper appointed to the Senate in late 2008.
"Those who break the rules must suffer the consequences. The conduct described in the numerous charges against Mr. Duffy is disgraceful," said PMO director of communications Jason MacDonald, who congratulated the RCMP on their progress.
Speaking through his lawyer, Donald Bayne, Mr. Duffy maintained his innocence and said he looks forward to a fair hearing in court, where he will mount a vigorous defence.
Mr. Bayne made much of the fact Mr. Duffy is charged with bribery in connection with the $90,000 he received from Mr. Wright, while the former Harper aide was not charged for providing the money.
"I am sure that I am not the only Canadian who will now wonder openly how what was not a crime or a bribe when Nigel Wright paid it on his own initiative became, however, mysteriously, a crime or bribe when received by Senator Duffy," the lawyer said. "The evidence will show that Senator Duffy did not want to participate in Nigel Wright's and the PMO's repayment scenario, which they concocted for purely political purposes."
The RCMP refused to explain why they charged Mr. Duffy but spared Mr. Wright, although the Mounties want Mr. Wright to testify if the matter goes to court, The Globe and Mail reported in April.
Ottawa defence lawyer Michael Spratt thinks the most likely reason Mr. Wright escaped charges is the RCMP made a "tactical decision" to focus on Mr. Duffy and rely on the former PMO aide as a witness.
"If Wright was charged as a co-accused, he would be charged alongside Duffy and that means he wouldn't be a compellable witness for the Crown. Wright's statement to the police couldn't be used against Duffy," Mr. Spratt, with Abergel Goldstein & Partners, said.
In April, the RCMP dropped its investigation into Mr. Wright, citing a lack of evidence. He quit as Mr. Harper's chief of staff shortly after it was revealed he had used personal funds to reimburse taxpayers for Mr. Duffy's questionable expenses to make public controversy over the claims subside.
With a report from Daniel Leblanc