OTTAWA — Two Ontario lawyers suddenly found themselves in the middle of a political maelstrom Monday after Senator Mike Duffy revealed Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s chief of staff arranged for the Conservative Party of Canada to foot the tab for Duffy’s legal bills.
Arthur Hamilton, a partner at Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP and lawyer to the Conservative Party of Canada, was taken by surprise to learn that Duffy had tabled copies of a $13,560 cheque his firm sent Duffy’s lawyer Janice Payne, a top employment lawyer with the Ottawa firm of Nelligan O’Brien Payne LLP.
According to Duffy, the cheque was designed to cover his legal bills in connection with a deal that has gripped Parliament Hill, to have Duffy pay back $90,000 in housing expenses that auditors judged questionable.
Duffy, who along with senators Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau, is fighting back against a motion tabled by their own party designed to suspend them from the Senate and strip them of their pay and benefits. He said the decision to arrange to pay his legal fees is yet more proof that Harper and his chief of staff Nigel Wright knew he had done nothing wrong but were asking him to lie to Canadians because it was politically expedient.
“Contrary to the prime minister’s assertion on CFRB last week that he ordered re-payment because Senate expense rules were, in his words ‘beyond the shadow of a doubt broken’; he had my legal bills paid fully,” Duffy said as senators listened in stunned silence.
“He would never do that if he believed my expense claims were improper. He did this, because as I’ve said from the start, this was all part of his strategy, negotiated by his lawyers and the Conservative Party’s lawyers to make a political situation embarrassing to his base go away.”
Duffy made his allegations in the Senate chamber, where comments are subject to Parliamentary privilege and make him immune from prosecution.
Hamilton, who was initially unaware his name had been dragged into the debate, refused requests from several media outlets to comment Monday.
In response, the Conservative Party said it sometimes helped legislators pay their legal bills but gave no more details.
Duffy’s revelation is the latest twist in a debate that has seen Canada’s Senate grapple with the concepts of due process and the rule of law versus the powers of an institution to discipline employees found to have contravened expense account rules.
While audits concluded that Duffy, Wallin, and Brazeau collected expense claims to which they were not entitled and they are under RCMP investigation, along with former Liberal Senator Mac Harb, at this point they have not even been charged under the Criminal Code.
While Harper supports the controversial motions before the Senate to suspend the three embattled senators and strip them of all their benefits until the next election, he is facing a growing rift from within his own caucus of Conservatives like Senator Hugh Segal and former environment minister Peter Kent who feel due process and the rule of law should prevail.
This latest round of revelations comes just days before a Calgary convention of the Conservative Party, which has lost support in the polls since the scandal broke in May and are now trailing the opposition Liberals.
In the end, the $13,560 cheque to Nelligan O’Brien Payne may prove to be a fraction of the legal billings that will be rung up before the affair is resolved.
With files from Reuters.