Senator Mike Duffy has quit his party's caucus amid a growing series of questions about the trail of expense claims he has filed while campaigning for the Conservatives.
The controversy had become "a significant distraction" to the Conservatives, Mr. Duffy said in a written statement Thursday evening. He will sit as an independent senator.
"This has been a difficult time for me and my family, and we are going to take some time away from the public," he said.
Last year, Mr. Duffy claimed a per diem from taxpayers on the same day he was paid $5,000 to speak at a police board conference, The Globe and Mail has learned.
Mr. Duffy also appears to have hit the campaign trail to stump for Conservative candidates in the 2011 election on days he was, according to a Senate-commissioned audit, travelling on "Senate business" and claiming a per diem payment.
The campaign expenses left Mr. Duffy under heavy pressure to step away from the caucus. "There are a growing number of questions about Mr. Duffy's conduct that don't have answers. Mr. Duffy will have to answer as an independent senator," a government source said on Thursday.
A senate source said the resignation is connected to the questions about Mr. Duffy's expenses on the campaign trail. The source said Mr. Duffy could be suspended without pay or his expenses could be referred to a committee for further review.
The Conservatives were already under fire after a report earlier this week that Prime Minister Stephen Harper's top aide, Nigel Wright, sent a personal cheque for $90,172 to a lawyer for Mr. Duffy – a former CTV and CBC journalist who now makes $135,200 per year as a senator – so he could repay taxpayers for improper housing expense claims.
Mr. Duffy's statement was his first public comment since Mr. Wright's cheque was revealed. Last night, Mr. Duffy was at the cottage that triggered much of the firestorm he faces after questions were raised about whether it really is his principal residence. The house is on a gravel road near PEI's biggest tourist attraction, Green Gables, the farm that served as the model for the home of Lucy Maud Montgomery's fictional Anne Shirley.
Mr. Duffy is refusing to speak to reporters. His wife, Heather, came to the door on Thursday when a reporter knocked. She called the coverage of his situation "despicable."
Mr. Duffy was once a star on both the speaking circuit and the Conservative campaign trail. In addition to his work as a senator, he is the director of Mike Duffy Media Services Inc., a company he incorporated in 1988 and he lists on his Senate disclosure form. He is registered as a speaker with at least two agencies and is billed as an "Ottawa insider" offering both insight and humour.
In one engagement arranged through his company, Mr. Duffy charged $5,000 to speak at an Ottawa conference put on by the Ontario Association of Police Services Boards on April 19, 2012. Eli El-Chantiry, an Ottawa city councillor and chair of the Ottawa Police Services Board, said his board made the arrangements and the association paid the bill. The speech lasted 40 to 45 minutes, he said.
Another person with knowledge of the event said some organizers balked at Mr. Duffy's fee and were told the Senator usually charged twice as much.
Mr. Duffy told auditors from Deloitte that he was in the city on Senate business during the week the event took place – and therefore entitled to a daily expense claim of about $87 per day. The Senate was not in session that week.
Senators are allowed to earn money in addition to their Senate salaries as long as they report any income over $2,000 per year to the Office of the Senate Ethics Officer. Mr. Duffy has said he earns at least $2,000 per year through media consulting and public appearances. He is not required to detail his full income or where he gave speeches.
The two speakers' organizations where Mr. Duffy is registered did not return messages on Thursday. One, the Speakers' Spotlight, recently removed his profile from its website.
Claiming a per diem while earning additional money does not necessarily break Senate rules. However, the Red Chamber is proposing to tighten its rules on per diems.
During the 2011 federal election, Mr. Duffy billed expenses to the campaigns of 11 Conservative candidates, each of whom Elections Canada partly reimbursed.
"All of the sudden, the word came down that Mike Duffy was showing up with virtually no notice, and that we were supposed to meet him at the local radio station," said David Morse, a Conservative candidate in Nova Scotia. Mr. Morse then campaigned with the senator, who "at that time had quite a fan base." He later surprised Mr. Morse by sending a $100.33 bill for expenses.
Ten other MPs' campaign finance records show similar claims. A Truro, N.S., newspaper reported that Mr. Duffy campaigned with Scott Armstrong on April 21. According to the Senate audit, Mr. Duffy was in Ottawa on "Senate business" that day and billed a per diem.
He also appears to have campaigned on days that the audit says he claimed he was on "Senate business" and claimed a per diem. This includes April 8, when Conservative candidate Sandy Lee said online she campaigned with Mr. Duffy in the Northwest Territories; April 5, when Mr. Duffy spoke to the Kootenay-Columbia Conservative association, according to the Canadian Press; and April 27 and 28, when he was campaigning in the Toronto area, according to documents obtained by the CBC.
Mr. Duffy's Toronto visit also left eight campaigns with a split bill, $169.45 each. "Guess we're on the hook for $170 bucks," one campaign worker wrote in an e-mail obtained by the CBC, later writing that they had not seen such a claim before.
In an e-mail on Thursday, Conservative Party spokesman Fred DeLorey said all campaign expenses were "paid for by the national or local campaigns, and included in the respective campaign returns."
In his statement, Mr. Duffy said he looks forward to "all relevant facts being made clear in due course" and hopes to rejoin the Conservative caucus.
"It is clear the public controversy surrounding me and the repayment of my Senate expenses has become a significant distraction to my caucus colleagues, and to the government. Given that my presence within the Conservative caucus only contributes to that distraction, I have decided to step outside of the caucus and sit as an independent senator pending resolution of these questions," he said.
After Mr. Harper appointed him to the Senate in January, 2009, Mr. Duffy immediately became a fixture of Conservative events. The former TV host travelled to fundraisers for MPs such as Diane Finley, Rob Nicholson and Gary Goodyear. All three declined interview requests on Thursday.