OTTAWA — Why did suspended senator Mike Duffy’s living expense claims in Ottawa land him in a criminal trial, while those of Conservative colleague Carolyn Stewart Olsen never seemed to raise an eyebrow?
It’s a question that has popped up occasionally over the years, but now Duffy’s defence lawyer is making a habit of dropping the Stewart Olsen name whenever possible.
Stewart Olsen, a former senior aide to the prime minister, sat on the secretive Senate committee that reviewed Duffy’s expenses and collaborated with the Prime Minister’s Office on altering its final report in 2013.
In this fourth week of Duffy’s fraud, breach of trust and bribery trial, the focus has looped back to Duffy’s declaration of his Ottawa-area home as his secondary residence, enabling him to collect $90,000 in living expenses over four years.
Both he and Stewart Olsen were well-established figures in Ottawa before they were appointed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to the Senate to represent Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick, respectively.
The Senate’s public finance reports show Stewart Olsen claimed $11,507 in living expenses for her home in Ottawa before she sold it in 2011. The records only go back to September 2010, a year after she was appointed.
“You know that Sen. Stewart Olsen claimed this national capital living expense from the time of her appointment?” Bayne asked Monday of top Senate finance official Nicole Proulx.
“All I can say is if senators provided a form, and said their primary residence was more than 100 km 1/8away 3/8 and they incurred additional living expenses while in the 1/8national capital region 3/8, and they had the proper documentation, then Finance would have provided the budget,” Proulx responded.
When the Senate expense scandal was unfolding in 2013, Stewart Olsen told The Canadian Press in an interview that she had always planned on living in New Brunswick, but she couldn’t immediately sell the home in Ottawa.
“We had to get it ready to put on the market; it needed some work. My husband’s business was winding down as well, so for the time that it took us to do all of that,” she said at the time.
“He wasn’t fully retired yet when I did, so it took us a little while for us to get that all done.”
Duffy also had work to complete on a cottage in Cavendish, P.E.I., where he says he spent $100,000 in upgrades over the years.
Internal emails filed in court show that Stewart Olsen worked closely with officials from the Prime Minister’s Office in early 2013 to delete any overly negative assessments of Duffy’s living expenses from a committee report.
“Hi Nigel, just a quick note to say that I am always ready to do exactly what is asked but it would have been a great help to know in advance what the strategy was,” she wrote to Harper’s chief of staff Nigel Wright in early 2013, as they strategized over Duffy’s expense issue.
That Senate committee had received a report from audit firm Deloitte that said it could not draw any conclusions about Duffy’s living expenses, because the Senate didn’t provide any criteria for primary or secondary residences.
Proulx said in court Monday she agreed with Deloitte’s assessment.
“I agree that there were no definitions or no criteria to establish primary residence at that time,” Proulx said.
Duffy has maintained that he broke no rules, and that he was pressured into repaying $90,000 in living expenses by the PMO and top Conservative senators, including Stewart Olsen.
That $90,000 was ultimately secretly repaid by Wright.