The RCMP is looking into Senate expense claims and critics have more ammunition in their calls for abolition after three members of the Red Chamber were found to have improperly received tens of thousands of dollars in living expenses.
The Mounties issued a statement on Sunday saying the matter of payments made to senators Mike Duffy, Patrick Brazeau and Mac Harb is being examined by the RCMP National Division's Sensitive and International Investigations Section.
"Based upon an evaluation of the information provided, the RCMP may or may not initiate an investigation," the RCMP said, adding that no further comment would be made by the force unless criminal charges are laid.
Independent audits conducted by Deloitte have found that Mr. Duffy, Mr. Brazeau and Mr. Harb improperly said their principal residences were more than 100 kilometres from Parliament Hill and, on that basis, received living expenses to which they were not entitled.
A committee composed of senators demanded that the money be repaid but did not ask the police to investigate, eliciting an angry response from opposition New Democrats who would like to see the Senate abolished.
"When you have an institution where nobody can be fired, you are going to have corruption, you are going to have people breaking the rules because they think they can break the rules," Charlie Angus, the NDP ethics critic, said Sunday.
"It doesn't seem that there is any way that Canadians can actually enforce the rules, and that's a huge problem of legitimacy," Mr. Angus said. "The Senate has shown throughout this scandal that their fundamental task is to protect their own and not to be accountable to Canadians."
As for the news that the police are looking into the expense claims even without a referral from the Senate, Mr. Angus said: "I will believe charges when I see them."
Mr. Harb quit the Liberal caucus and is refusing to return $51,482, saying he will take the matter to court. Mr. Brazeau, an independent, has not said whether he will repay $48,744. Mr. Duffy, a Conservative, voluntarily paid back $90,172.24 before the release of the audits, saying he had found the paperwork confusing.
When asked about a potential police investigation, Marjory LeBreton, the Leader of the Government in the Senate, said she had seen no evidence of RCMP interest in the matter.
But Ms. LeBreton pointed out that even the auditors' reports said the Senate rules are unclear in defining what constitutes a primary residence. And, she said, when the auditors were asked at a Senate committee if there was anything they found that would warrant further action, "the answer was no."
The reports of the auditors and those of the Senate committee that looked into the expenses of the three senators are public documents and could be used by the police in their work. But the RCMP would have to ask the Senate for any additional material such as forms relating to the actual expenses that were claimed.
Asked if the government would co-operate in the event of an RCMP investigation, Ms. LeBreton said: "It's a hypothetical question and I have no comment."
James Cowan, the Leader of the Senate opposition, said law-enforcement officials and lawyers who deal with criminal matters have told him that the RCMP is likely to follow a matter like this very thoroughly, and does not need a referral from a third party to launch an inquiry.
In the event of a full-fledged investigation, "I would assume that the Senate would co-operate fully, but that's not my decision," Mr. Cowan said.
As for renewed questions about the Senate's legitimacy, Mr. Cowan said there always have been and always will be critics of the Red Chamber and "when we are under attack anyway, as being unelected and unaccountable, then this is real fodder for that."
With reports from Kim Mackrael and Bill Curry