The RCMP laid a raft of criminal charges on Thursday against Sentor Mike Duffy, who was once a close political ally of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
The 31 charges against Duffy are the latest development in a long-running expenses scandal that has hurt support for Harper’s right-leaning Conservative government ahead of an election scheduled for October 2015.
Harper, who took power in 2006 promising to increase accountability, came under attack from opposition parties last year after it emerged his chief of staff, Nigel Wright, had secretly paid Duffy a cheque for $90,000 to cover expenses. The Senate later found Duffy had claimed the expenses improperly.
RCMP Assistant Commissioner Gilles Michaud said Duffy is suspected of corruptly obtaining, or trying to obtain, the $90,000 from Wright.
“Mr. Duffy has been charged with one count each of bribery of a judicial officer, frauds on the government and breach of trust,” Michaud told reporters. Harper has always insisted he knew nothing about the cheque and would not have approved it.
Wright quit his job in the Prime Minister’s Office in May 2013, a few days after the news broke. In November, the Senate voted to suspend Duffy and two other Conservative senators for claiming expenses they had not been entitled to.
Duffy is a former high-profile television reporter who had proved to be a popular draw at Conservative fundraising events. Harper appointed him to the Senate in December 2008.
In April this year, the Mounties said they had dropped a separate corruption investigation into Wright’s activities.
Duffy’s lawyer, Donald Bayne, said Thursday’s charges raise serious questions.
“I am sure that I am not the only Canadian who will now wonder openly, how what was not a crime or bribe when Nigel Wright paid it on his own initiative, became however mysteriously, a crime or bribe when received by Senator Duffy,” he said in a statement.
The fact one of the charges alleges corruption in regard to the payment from the former chief of staff of Prime Minister Stephen Harper raises the question as to whether Harper himself could be compelled to testify.
A legal expert consulted by Reuters said the prime minister would not be exempt from testifying on the corruption charge but only if it could be reasonably shown that he himself had something to do with it.
“Thus far the evidence is he did not, and was so mad about it he fired the man. So as a matter of practice, he’s got no privilege. As a matter of irrelevance, thus far it seems that he will not be coming,” said the lawyer, who declined to be identified because his firm has involvement in this area.
Support for the Conservatives slipped after the scandal broke and polls continue to suggest the opposition Liberals are likely to win the most seats in the House of Commons in the 2015 election.
“This is yet another example of the secrecy and alleged corruption involving the Harper Conservatives,” Liberal MP Marc Garneau told a news conference.
Duffy is next due in court on Sept. 16, the day after the House of Commons resumes sitting. A spokesman for Harper was not immediately available for comment.
The majority of the Mounties’ charges against Duffy relate to living and travel expenses that he allegedly claimed even though he was not entitled to do so.