Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Duffy's legal odyssey

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The Senate scandals involving Mike Duffy and others have always generated more questions than answers. The trend continued this week when Sen. Duffy was charged by RCMP with 31 criminal charges, including bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

Bribery usually involves two culpable parties -- the giver and the taker -- but in this case only the alleged receiver, Mr. Duffy, has been charged in connection with a $90,000 payment from Nigel Wright, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's former chief of staff.

RCMP had previously cleared Mr. Wright of criminal wrongdoing without any explanation. The best interpretation so far is that RCMP found no evidence he "corruptly" offered the money, while Mr. Duffy allegedly received it "corruptly."

It may be that Mr. Wright's intent was pure (he merely wanted to help the taxpayer?) while Mr. Duffy saw the money as a payoff for some favour that has yet to be explained or identified.

The criminal trial will hopefully clear up this apparent oddity, which will undoubtedly involve testimony from Mr. Wright. Albeit a wealthy man, it will be interesting to hear why he so valued Mr. Duffy he was willing to part with $90,000 of his own money.

Mr. Duffy is also unlikely to pass up the opportunity to summon Mr. Harper to the witness chair, where he will have to explain what he knew and when. Did he ask Mr. Wright to help out poor Mr. Duffy?

The prime minister has always said his office would co-operate with the investigation. He should be just as eager to meet Mr. Duffy's questions in court.

It's possible the trial could be conducted next year, particularly since neither the prosecution nor the defence has any obvious reasons for wanting to artificially delay the matter.

If so, given the complexity of some of the material, a trial date sometime next fall is not out of the question. That could put it right in the middle of an election, a political inconvenience for the Tories, to be sure, but one that should be of no consequence to the judicial system.

There is a small chance Mr. Harper would call a snap election next spring after he delivers a balanced budget, which the Conservatives regard as the apex of splendid government. Such a possibility might be even more likely now, unless, of course, a spring trial is also in the cards.

An audit into the expense claims of every senator is also pending. The outcome of that review, particularly if it finds more of Mr. Harper's appointees with questionable claims, could also throw off the election timing.

Mr. Duffy's trial should answer many of the questions that have bothered Canadians, particularly the abuse of expense and living accounts, and the ability of senators to issue consulting contracts on their own authority.

Some of the rules governing the conduct of senators were poorly written, such as the residency requirement that defines a senator's primary residence as his or her main residence "in the province... represented by the senator."

The alleged use of Senate funds for non-Senate business, however, is clearly not a semantic debate.

The Senate scandal is now two years old, but Canadians are not too much wiser about the details, which is a sad comment on the ability of Parliament to provide answers on matters of national importance.

Unlike their American counterparts, Canada's parliamentary committees are notoriously weak and partisan. They were useless in any effort to get to the bottom of the shenanigans in the Senate and Prime Minister's Office.

In fact, if criminal charges had not been filed, Canadians may well have been left in the dark indefinitely.

In our adversarial legal system, a criminal trial may not produce the absolute truth, but it will be the best version available.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 19, 2014 A16

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