Within hours of finding out he was cleared of all 31 charges in connection with the long-running Senate expense scandal, Mike Duffy has seen his full Senate standing restored.
The judge either dismissed or found him not guilty of fraud, breach of trust and bribery charges on Thursday, close to two years after the politician was charged.
Duffy was let back into the Senate on Thursday, with restored access to the full resources of the upper chamber.
As he explained his decisions, Ontario Court Justice Charles Vaillancourt referred to Duffy as a “credible witness,” and said that there wasn’t a “hint of criminality” in Duffy’s actions.
Vaillancourt suggested in his ruling that the Senate needs to clarify the rules governing spending.
Observers have noted that the trial was not based on whether Duffy took the trips that he billed for or used the things he expensed, but rather whether those claims were illegal. Not only did the judge say that they were legal, but even went so far as to say that they did constitute Senate business.
The bribery charges stemmed from a $90,000 cheque from former Prime Minister’s Officer chief of staff Nigel Wright to Duffy, which the judge said spoke to a lack of character on the PMO’s part, rather than on Duffy’s.
In strictly legal terms, the judge must also consider whether Duffy took the money in his “official capacity” as a senator.
If convicted, Duffy could have served up to 14 years behind bars.
The controversy surrounding Mike Duffy began back in late 2012 when initial questions were raised about some of the senator’s expense claims. Some expenses – mainly relating to Duffy’s living arrangements – were flagged as inappropriate. According to Duffy, then-prime minister Stephen Harper told him he needed to pay the Senate back, to the tune of $90,000.
He obliged, but the question quickly turned to who had actually paid the money. In the spring of 2013, the Prime Minister’s Office confirmed that Harper’s chief of staff, Nigel Wright, had written a cheque covering the payment.
Duffy quickly resigned from the Conservative Senate caucus, and Wright stepped down as well. But it wouldn’t be enough to snuff out the scandal.
Within the next few weeks, the cops showed up. The RCMP took over the investigation into Duffy’s expenses and, in the process, exposed an alleged ‘slush fund’ presided over by Duffy’s friend, Gerald Donohue, and the frantic Conservative damage-control that went on behind the scenes in the first half of 2013.
The charges against Duffy were formally laid in July 2014, with the trial beginning the following April.
Duffy maintained during his own testimony that his expenses were above board, testifying that he is “a senator from P.E.I., I live in P.E.I., and I followed the rules, I did not break the rules, let alone the law.”
Meantime, the Senate could soon be heading back to court as Friday is the deadline for seven of its former members to repay almost $528,000 in claims that the federal auditor general ruled should never have been charged to taxpayers.
None of the individuals chose to challenge the decision through an independent arbitration process, but they also haven’t made any public declarations to repay the money by Friday’s deadline.
Administrative rules are expected to be updated as part of a review of Senate spending guidelines and oversight stemming from the auditor general report.