Verdict in Sen. Mike Duffy’s case coming Thursday, but issue still reveberates

Did Sen. Mike Duffy commit a crime or didn't he?

OTTAWA — Did Sen. Mike Duffy commit a crime or didn’t he?

That’s the question Ontario Court Justice Charles Vaillancourt will seek to answer Thursday when he passes judgment on the 31 counts of fraud, breach of trust and bribery Duffy has faced since July 2014.

But the much broader implications of the saga of the senator from Prince Edward Island are perhaps best summed up in Duffy’s own words to the Senate in 2013 when he delivered a scathing rebuttal of the allegations swirling around him.

“This,” Duffy thundered, “is a case for the history books.”

It all began in 2012, when the auditor general issued a report that recommended taking steps to ensure members of the upper chamber were submitting enough proof their expense claims were for legitimate parliamentary business.

Questions about Duffy’s own claims — including whether he was a legitimate resident of P.E.I., the province he’d been appointed in 2008 to represent — began later that year. It was the first in a long chain of events that would, among other things, eventually force the departure of Nigel Wright, then the prime minister’s chief of staff.

The bribery charge Duffy faces is the result of Wright’s decision to personally pay the $90,000 in living expenses Duffy claimed by declaring his long-time home in an Ottawa suburb was actually a secondary residence.

The remaining 30 fraud and breach of trust charges relate to Senate money the Crown alleged Duffy either received for trips that had nothing to do with Senate work or that he funnelled through a friend’s company to cover costs the Senate wouldn’t pay for.

Duffy has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

The trial exposed the inner workings of a secretive Prime Minister’s Office and the Conservative party machine, shaped the early narrative of last year’s fateful election campaign and even led to at least one high profile Conservative publicly turning his back on the party.

Benjamin Perrin, a former legal adviser to the Prime Minister’s Office who became caught up in the who-knew-what-when storyline, admitted in the final days of the campaign that the Conservatives had lost “the moral authority” to govern.

Of course, Harper lost the election. But not everyone saw the Duffy controversy as an indictment of the party or the Conservative government.

“In my riding, it was about Mr. Duffy and the senators who were singled out, it was not about the Senate,” said Conservative MP Lisa Raitt, who represents the Ontario riding of Milton.

But the ensuing ethics and spending scandal did force a national conversation about the need for Senate reform — an issue Harper referred to the Supreme Court, only to be shut down by a high court that insisted constitutional amendments would be unavoidable.

In 2014, then-Liberal leader Justin Trudeau took matters into his own hands, kicking Liberal senators out of the party’s caucus in an effort to eliminate partisanship in the upper chamber.

There, the Duffy reverberations echoed even Thursday as Sen. Pamela Wallin walked out of a meeting of independent senators — seven of which were recently appointed by the now-governing Liberals.

Wallin, however, is a Harper appointee who was booted out of the Conservative caucus over lingering questions about her own expenses — travel claims, mostly — and who is still waiting to learn whether she, too, will face charges.

That particular shoe could drop anytime after Duffy’s verdict is known — but Wallin wasn’t willing to talk about the possibility Thursday, walking silently past television cameras and reporters as she left her meeting.

For his part, Duffy has also held his tongue throughout most of his 62-day trial, save the eight days that he spent on the witness stand. The trial began last April as the hottest ticket in Ottawa, a political cause celebre that promised to lay bare the inner workings of one of the most secretive, media-wary governments in recent history.

But when the Oct. 19 election upended the status quo on Parliament Hill, the public and media interest in the trial all but evaporated as the Harper era was relegated to the annals of history.

As leader of the official Opposition, Tom Mulcair relentlessly grilled the Tories during the hottest days of the Duffy scandal, prompting former prime minister Brian Mulroney to call him the best Opposition leader since John Diefenbaker.

The case will serve as a reminder to what happens when Conservatives are in power, said Mulcair, but it also exposed real faults with the Senate.

“Canadians have been able to see since the beginning of the Duffy affair that everything to do with the Senate — from the appointment process through their administration — that they are unaccountable, and it is a grossly undemocratic institution,” he said.

It may yet allow Duffy to take up his Senate seat once again.

If acquitted, he can return as soon as the upper chamber convenes again. If he’s found guilty, he will remain on a leave of absence without pay until sentencing.

If his sentence is anything other than a complete discharge — the most serious charge Duffy faces carries a maximum sentence of 14 years in jail — he’d be suspended until his appeals conclude.

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