Justice Charles Vaillancourt described that ordeal in more acid terms: “Damage control at its finest,” administered with “ruthless efficiency,” he called it. “The political, covert, relentless unfolding of events is mindboggling and shocking. The precision and planning of the exercise would make any military commander proud.”
With those words, an Ontario Court judge lowered the boom on the dark manipulations of former PM Stephen Harper that led to a legal and personal ordeal that nearly wrecked a man’s life.
The Crown’s criminal case against Mike Duffy turned out to be tainted from top to bottom. They can turn off the electricity to the Justice Department any time; the red faces over there will light the place up for months.
Justice Vaillancourt put a dramatic end to Duffy’s three-year ordeal of character assassination, intrigue, legal chicanery and grim political theatre by rejecting all 31 criminal charges against the much-maligned senator from P.E.I.
After years of claiming that nothing that he did as a senator was worthy of criticism, Duffy has now been vindicated by a lengthy trial process. The only thing between him and a new lease on life now is the appeal process. It remains to be seen if a disgraced prosecution will opt to appeal any of Judge Vaillancourt’s 308-page verdict.
The ill will in the Conservative party establishment and among its media allies against Duffy once seemed to guarantee that he would never set foot in the Senate again. Now he can go back to work tomorrow — unless the Harperites still in the Red Chamber foolishly move to block Duffy’s return by arguing he brought “shame” on the Senate.
Here’s the truth: The Senate brought shame on the Senate — shame and opprobrium — and it will be a very long time before it can hold its collective head up again. A good starting point would be an apology to Duffy for turfing him and others from the Senate without a glimpse of due process. Now that all the smears have been judged without merit, that should not be a difficult thing to do.
People have to remember exactly what happened here. Mike Duffy was put through a brutal legal ordeal by the Harper government for purely political reasons — just as Duffy himself has always claimed. It is safe to say that Duffy would have been ruined financially by this long, costly legal battle had it not been for Thursday’s stunning turn of events.
He was without an income for an extended period of time. Couple that with massive legal bills, the expenses associated with running two establishments (primary or not) and the fact that he’s creeping up on his 70s, and it wasn’t looking likely that Duffy would ever recoup these losses.
Nor was it likely that many Canadians would care, taking comfort from a media-driven narrative that portrayed him as the architect of his own downfall. But we’re all a little better than our worst detractors think we are — an unpopular thought in the golden age of schadenfreude ushered in by Harper.
And then there was Duffy’s precarious medical condition. For years he has suffered from serious heart issues. They couldn’t have been helped by the stresses imposed by this long-running legal soap opera. Sources say that Duffy’s heart disease has progressed more rapidly than his doctors first estimated, and that his only goal throughout this political scandal was to survive long enough to see his name cleared. Against the odds, he has lived to see that day.
This case is about something more than the utter demolition of a criminal case against an individual. It’s also about a justice system — at both the prosecutorial and police level — being brought into disrepute. The Duffy affair, like the robocalls scandal, played out in a landscape populated by shadowy players. Very few of them ever received much scrutiny, and society never got to the bottom of either of these scandals. But there was always the whiff of scapegoating here — from the RCMP press conferences announcing the charges against Duffy (a gross exercise in PR overkill) to the absurdly long list of baseless charges against him.
Duffy has been summarily acquitted of accepting a $90,000 bribe from Nigel Wright, the Crown’s star witness at his trial and Stephen Harper’s former chief of staff. That was the charge that turned a disagreement over an expense account into Duffygate. The Crown’s case on that score was so weak that prosecutors acknowledged during the trial that there was not much chance of a conviction — an opinion that may explain why they never even raised the matter on cross-examination when Duffy took the stand in his own defence for six days.
The fatal flaw in the Crown’s bribery charge was this: If Duffy was guilty of taking a bribe, surely someone was guilty of offering one. Where was the Crown’s common sense on that issue? The decision not to charge Nigel Wright — the person who “gave” the senator the $90,000 to repay housing expenses he denied owing — turned this element of the Crown’s criminal narrative into a terrible joke. So the question lingers: Why did the Crown bring the bribery charge in the first place?
And that leads to another embarrassing question for the prosecution. They fired a shotgun into Duffy at close range, bringing a total of 31 criminal charges against him. In the end, none of the buckshot hit the target. When you score zero in a test, the conclusion is unambiguous — you’ve failed, utterly.
But what’s the explanation for this abysmal misreading of the Criminal Code by the so-called experts? Was this ever a search for justice, or was it merely the political use of an arm of government against an enemy — as I suspected it was in Stephen Harper’s war with Helena Guergis? Whatever the answer is to that question, and given Judge Vaillancourt’s verdict on Duffy’s residency claims, the Crown might be wise to re-consider its charges against Senator Patrick Brazeau and others. Simply put, the Crown was out to breakfast, lunch and dinner.
So was the RCMP. The Force conducted the investigation into Wright and Duffy and decided to exonerate the former and crush the latter. With Vaillancourt’s decision, the RCMP’s grasp of the Criminal Code looks as tenuous as that of the Justice Department. Canadians are still waiting for the commissioner of the RCMP to explain why Duffy was charged with taking a bribe while Wright was not charged with giving one.
The answer had better not be that the national police force was doing the bidding of the Harper government — or, worse, that Wright had Harper’s approval to do the deal.
Up until yesterday, Stephen Harper and PMO had escaped scot-free from Duffygate — though their role in the affair was obvious, disgraceful, and (with the exception of the 2015 election results) completely unpunished. Consider the actions of the former PM.
Donald Trump might have called Harper ‘Lyin’ Steve’ for the multiple versions of the facts he gave about Duffygate — none of them true. The former PM insisted that the whole affair had unfolded between Wright and Duffy. In fact, more than a dozen people in his office worked on the file, pressuring Duffy to do the deal or risk losing his Senate seat.
Harper’s PMO staff also sought and obtained changes to Senate reports and breached the confidentiality of an independent audit commissioned by the Senate.
Harper claimed Wright resigned. Then he said he was fired.
Stephen Harper denied knowing about the details of Wright’s scheme to repay Duffy’s housing expenses — as incredible a statement as any Canadian politician has ever uttered.
Harper looked even worse after Judge Vaillancourt found that Duffy’s housing expenses were in order. Wright told Harper the same thing to make sure the PM was comfortable with taking action against someone who likely was entitled to the expenses he had claimed.
Harper unleashed the hounds anyway — because all he has ever cared about during his career is his idea of political perception. His base wouldn’t understand Senate rules, even when they were being obeyed, he argued. The truth has never meant anything to him. Remember, this is the guy who congratulated the Mounties when they charged Duffy.
Harper’s closest aides look just as bad as their boss. The only way they could deny knowing the details of Wright’s cash gift to Duffy was through the improbable claim that they didn’t read the emails from their boss.
As for Ray Novak’s denials, the PM’s former legal advisor, Benjamin Perrin, took care of those. Perrin confirmed in sworn testimony that Novak was in the room while the deal was being discussed, looking expressionless. Apparently the PM’s deputy chief of staff and confidante had an out-of-body experience as the germane parts of the deal were being laid out.
As for the Senate, its sycophantic collective subservience to the PMO — to skullduggery, deceitfulness, autocracy and poisonous duplicity — was barely mentioned in the Duffy trial, though it’s at the heart of the scandal. Judge Vaillancourt brilliantly understood that.
It was not for nothing that he castigated the Crown for not calling Senator David Tkachuk to the stand. After all, Tkachuk was top dog on the Senate’s Internal Economy Board. He was the one who told Duffy his housing expenses were legitimate — a claim made by Duffy on the stand and never challenged by the Crown. And he was the one who asked for and received changes to a Senate report to bring it in line with sneaky demands from the PMO.
Conservative Senator Irving Gerstein, since retired, secretly went to a senior partner at the auditing firm Deloitte to make inquiries about their forensic audit for the Senate. Gerstein was being used to plot PMO strategy in the expenses scandal. Acting on a request from Wright, Gerstein spoke to Michael Runia. Despite the obvious impropriety involved, and the Senate’s stated desire to get to the bottom of the Wright/Duffy affair, Gerstein and Runia were never called before any Senate committee to testify about their role in the scandal. The Senate’s commitment to seeking the truth was non-existent. Its obsession was with the cover-up.
The Senate’s least honourable moment was even worse. After denying Duffy, Brazeau and Pamela Wallin due process before they were suspended without pay, the Senate changed the rules dealing with alleged expenses improprieties. Now, senators with expenses problems could go to an arbitrator or simply write a check to get out of their difficulties. Current and former Senate leaders like Conservatives Claude Carignan and Leo Housakos did exactly that after their names turned up in Auditor General Michael Ferguson’s investigation into the expenses of all senators. That makes what Duffy and the others were treated to by the Senate exactly what Penny Collenette called it on a CBC radio podcast — “a kangaroo court” in a place that had forgotten what due process and the presumption of innocence mean.
As Mike Duffy told me many months ago, all roads in this fiasco lead back to the former prime minister. Today proved him right. Stephen Harper subverted Parliament, politics, the inner workings of the Senate and his own party during his one-man government. But thanks to a fearless defence attorney and an unblinking judge, he was not able to subvert justice.
The Conservative Party of Canada can now have no illusions about the man they are handing the microphone to at their upcoming convention. Whatever he says about the good old days, the echoes will be of Judge Vaillancourt’s telling words.
Author: Michael Harris