Penny Collenette, a former director of appointments in the Prime Minister's Office under Jean Chrétien, is an adjunct professor in the University of Ottawa's faculty of law.
More than 70 years ago, U.S. sociologist Edwin Sutherland coined the term "white-collar crime" during a speech to the American Sociological Society. He defined the behaviour as a "crime committed by a person of respectability and high social status." (Contemporary definitions will also describe white-collar crime as "non-violent.")
Sound familiar? As far as we know, violence has not been evident in the Senate of Canada, but it would appear that respectable individuals of high social status are alleged to have carried out either incidents of, or more seriously, patterns of unacceptable and possibly fraudulent use of taxpayers' money.
The Auditor-General's report released Tuesday, which cost Canadian taxpayers about $23.5-million, outlines in detail strong concerns about the spending habits of senators. The clearest line in the two-year, item-by-item investigation states that the Auditor-General's office started with the "fundamental principle that public funds should not be used to pay for personal or private activities."
If that was a fundamental principle, it clearly wasn't communicated or understood. But really, how clear did it have to be? Anyone knows that the commingling of professional and personal expenses is a "no-no." In the corporate world, certainly, an employee could be fired for such an action, which would likely breach a company's code of ethics. If there was an honest mistake, the employee could perhaps offer to pay the money back, but there would certainly be a blot on a career.
Yet no senator has been fired (it is complicated), although three (Patrick Brazeau, Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin) are suspended without pay. To further complicate matters, Ms. Wallin is wandering around in a legal limbo. She has been "named and shamed" by her colleagues in the Senate, but still has not been charged by the RCMP.
Meanwhile, some senators have already paid back both large and small amounts of money. None of them seem to agree they should return the money, but for the good of the process and the institution that is apparently what they are doing.
But for all the drama and speculation, it has to be noted that a majority of senators – 86 of them – had "clean" records. What do we take from that? Why did 30 Senators allegedly not understand that what they were doing might raise some red flags? Was it a higher sense of professional responsibility that cloaked the unblemished 86? Did this cohort have a more finely tuned moral compass than their colleagues?
An added dimension of blame was an obvious weak workplace culture. There were few "tone from the top" messages. Was there, or was there not, zero tolerance for misuse of public funds?
Two years ago, as the first explosive details were made public about the infamous cheque from the PMO's former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, to Mike Duffy, a bizarre kangaroo-like court took place on the floor of the Senate with accusations, denunciations and high political drama. If there was senior leadership, no one seemed clear on who it was. Was it the secretive Internal Economy Committee, or was it, in fact, the Prime Minister's Office? No one knew who was calling the shots, which made for a murky chain of command, leading to an assumption that there were mixed messages.
But aside from the questions of the use of public money, another important question must be asked. Why, in all these years, with both senators and staff involved, did no one blow the whistle? Why did no one speak truth to power? Why was there a Senate blind eye to serious financial concerns?
Any good external oversight committee which may be set up would most certainly recommend not only the implementation of strong internal controls but also of an ethics reporting line for employees of senators. Even the venerable Ontario Securities Commission is currently debating the issue. The OSC has been taking a hard look at the reward program for whistleblowers, first put in place by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. The successful program is based on regulations stemming from the U.S. Dodd-Frank legislation, which was enacted as a consequence of the misdeeds of the 2008 financial crisis.
In 2014, a survey from PricewaterhouseCoopers noted that more than a third of Canadian companies say they are victims of white-collar crime. One of the issues is "accounting fraud."
Should corporations and the Senate be compared? It is a fair question. After all, thousands of employees have not lost their jobs, nor have they lost their pensions. And shareholders have not lost their investments.
But at the end of the day, taxpayers have had their money abused and wasted. Maybe we will get all the money back. But we have spent a lot of money to find it. The Senate's white collar is clearly not professionally cleaned these days.