OTTAWA — At the Ottawa courthouse, a suspended senator’s criminal trial continues.
Up the street, on Parliament Hill, a different system of justice is unfolding for senators apparently caught up in some of the same alleged misspending.
That asymmetrical response by the upper chamber is expected to come under scrutiny as Sen. Mike Duffy’s fraud, breach of trust and bribery trial enters its second phase.
The Senate is simultaneously bracing for the release of the auditor general’s report on the expenses of all senators. Former Supreme Court Justice Ian Binnie has been named as an arbitrator for MPs identified as having questionable claims.
Neither Duffy nor fellow senators Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau had such recourse when they were suspended in 2013 “because at the time, unfortunately, this process wasn’t in place,” Senate Speaker Leo Housakos said when Binnie’s role was announced last week.
“There is no plausible reason why the same process wouldn’t be open to us,” Wallin’s lawyer Terrence O’Sullivan told the Toronto Star.
Duffy’s defence lawyer Donald Bayne has already railed in the courtroom against the prosecution’s treatment of Duffy as a scapegoat for practices that were apparently all too common for the Senate.
To that end, the next chapter of the trial will begin with Bayne arguing that the Senate should hand over the results of another internal audit — one done by the Senate in 2013 examining the residency status of all senators.
Some of the 31 charges that Duffy is facing are related to the living and travel expenses he filed after declaring a secondary residence in the Ottawa area. Duffy has pleaded not guilty to all of the charges against him.
The Senate is refusing to divulge the internal residency audit, citing parliamentary privilege — a form of immunity that exempts lawmakers from certain aspects of the justice system to allow them to do their work.
Here again, the Senate appears to have taken a mercurial stand.
In January, the Senate rules committee issued a report on parliamentary privilege recommending that the approach be modernized.
“The service of court documents should also be revisited. It is difficult to understand today how the service of court documents, at least by mail, actually infringes privilege,” read the report.
“It should also be made clear that this privilege does not apply in situations where the parliamentarian (or official) is a party to a court action.”
Once the privilege issue is dealt with in the court, the Crown will resume hearing from its witnesses. The most notable witness expected to appear soon is Gerry Donohue, a friend of Duffy’s who received tens of thousands through Senate contracts, and then paid other individuals who did work for Duffy.
But prosecutors won’t wrap up their case within these three weeks allotted to the trial, and that makes it unlikely that key witness Nigel Wright — the prime minister’s former chief of staff — will appear in June.
The court is expected to learn soon whether arrangements have been made to have the trial extend into the summer months, where it could end up overlapping with the federal election campaign.
Jennifer Ditchburn, The Canadian Press