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A Very Canadian Corruption Scandal Is Fizzling Out

Senator Mike Duffy brought down the prime minister's right-hand man and stood trial for bribery and fraud. But, now, he's a free man, and will be returning to Canada's scandal-prone upper chamber.
Justin Ling
Montreal, CA
Photo via the Canadian Press/Justin Tang

The legal case against the most famous senator in Canada ended on Thursday afternoon, not with a bang but with a seemingly interminable five-hour long reading of the counts against one Mike Duffy

After each, following a painstaking legal explanation, Justice Charles Vaillancourt declared: "not guilty."

The senator was facing 31 charges of fraud, bribery, and breach of trust. Prosecutors alleged that Duffy bilked taxpayers for housing expenses, set up a slush fund to hand contracts to his friends, took money in exchange for political favours, and abused his political office.


The judge found him not guilty on every single charge.

It was the end of a four-year long political scandal that, at one time, threatened to take down the prime minister himself.

It was a very Canadian scandal. Duffy, appointed Senator for Prince Edward Island, was selected by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to sit in the partisan, un-elected, and frequently-maligned upper chamber of Canada's Parliament. Before his appointment, he was a small-c conservative reporter-cum-commentator, with his own TV show. Afterwards, he was a loyal pitbull to the government forces.

Within three years of his mandate — one that would extend until the Senator resigned, died, was expelled, or aged-out of the chamber at 75 — allegations swirled that Duffy had misappropriated expenses, that he had filed claims to be reimbursed as though he were living in a small cottage on PEI. Instead, he was sitting in his home just outside Ottawa.

Related: Corruption Trial in Canada Dishes Political Secrets as Prime Minister's Former Right-Hand Man Testifies

That quaint level of corruption spawned a reverberating chain of events. Three other senators were facing similar allegations — claiming travel and housing expenses based on tenuous claims. An independent audit begins looking into their expenses. The government moved to stem the bleeding. Nigel Wright, chief of staff to Prime Minister Harper, offered to pay off Duffy's expenses himself — Duffy, broke and incredulous, said he followed the letter of the law in claiming those expenses. He took the cheque, cashed it, and paid the Senate back with a personal cheque.


The cheque comes to light. The Auditor General, responsible for ferreting out abuses of the taxpayer dime, begins coming through every dollar of every Senator's spending. The government leadership in the Senate faces allegations of a cover-up. The prime minister can't go anywhere without being hounded with questions. Support for abolishing the unelected upper chamber skyrockets.

And scrutiny doesn't let up. Senators Mac Harb, a Liberal; Pamela Wallin, and Patrick Brazeau, both Conservatives, are all named.

Harb resigns. Wright resigns. Wallin, Brazeau, and Duffy are suspended from the Senate.

The Senate sits until minute for more than a week as it tries to suspended the three. Each stands up in the chamber to defend themselves.

"I allowed myself to be intimidated into doing what I knew in my heart was wrong out of a fear of losing my job and out of a misguided sense of loyalty," Duffy said, railing against what he called the "unaccountable power" of the prime minister's office.

Charges are laid against Harb, then Duffy. During this, Brazeau is accused of sexual assault and, in 2015, pleaded guilty.

The national political and media fixation on the story reached a fever pitch. Thousands of articles are published. Thomas Mulcair, then-leader of the official opposition, spent virtually every day demanding answers from an unrepentant prime minister. One reporter, cameraman in tow, managed to catch Wright out for a pre-dawn morning run.


Related: Dozens of Canadian Politicians May Go to Jail Over Spending Probe

But, now, in act five, there's little to show from the scandal.

Duffy was acquitted. Wallin has yet to face charges, and they may never come. Brazeau, facing his own demons, tried to take his own life last month. The audit that was supposed to uncover every misspent dime only uncovered less than $1 million in potentially inappropriate expenses — ordering just a third of that number to be payed back, only to see that number knocked down in arbitration to just under $200,000.

The overall cost to audit the senators totalled nearly $24 million.

For Duffy, he's now back to where he's always wanted to be.

A statement from the Senate law clerk released Thursday afternoon reads: "Under the rules of the Senate, today's acquittal gives rise to the reinstatement of Senator Duffy as a member of the Senate in full standing with full salary and office resources."