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January 16, 2014

Independent inquiry needed

Scott Stockdale

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Canadians deserve to know the truth about the ongoing senate scandal and an independent enquiry may be the only way they will ever have of finding this ever-elusive truth.

It is easy to see why the Senate should not be investigating itself, if one examines attempts to have the Senate investigate Senator Irving Gerstein's alleged attempts to influence the Deloitte audit of Senator Mike Duffy's expenses; and it's questionable just how independent the RCMP is from Prime Minister Harper's Justice Minister Peter MacKay, the chief law enforcement officer of the country.

On May 9, 2013, the Senate released a report into the expenses of Mike Duffy and two other senators along with the audit, and concluded that the rules were unclear. This scenario lends credence to Senator Duffy's claim that he violated no rules and was coerced into paying back his expenses by the Prime Minister's Office (PMO), because Prime Minister Harper and his chief of staff Nigel Wright insisted he must.

Prior to the release of the Senate's report it emerged that it had been whitewashed by the Conservative - dominated committee to reflect less poorly on Senator Duffy, who was at that time a Conservative. As a result of concerns raised in an RCMP affidavit – released May 14 - that Senator Duffy was claiming travel expenses from the Senate while campaigning for the Conservative Party, the Senate reopened Senator Duffy's audit.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said that two “independent” investigations were being undertaken into Senator Duffy’s expenses, but he didn't name the investigators. Subsequently it became public knowledge that the parliamentary ethics commissioner and the Senate internal economy committee were the alleged “independent” investigators. Canadians didn't need NDP Leader Tom Mulcair to tell them that the Senate committee review cannot be considered an “independent” review.

 “Does the minister not realize that that’s about as credible as Paul Martin asking Jean Chretien to investigate the sponsorship scandal?” Mr. Mulcair said, in the House of Commons.

Meanwhile, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau flatly accused the government of obstructing a Senate audit. “We know now that Conservatives on the Senate committee on internal economy used their majority to doctor the final report on Sen. Duffy’s expenses,” Mr. Trudeau charged. “Can anybody on that side of the House tell us who gave the order to whitewash the report on Sen. Duffy?”

Like many other questions of interest in this senate scandal, Prime Minister Harper has never actually answered the question about what he knew and what he ordered. On more than one occasion he has answered questions about the senate scandal with responses about the recent trade deal with the European Union – which he hopes will be his legacy – not the senate scandal.

The more one delves into the details of the senate scandal, the more one can understand Mr. Harper's evasiveness. But understanding is not the same as justifying.

In an attempt to have the Senate investigate what the RCMP affidavit alleges is tampering with the Deloite audit of Senator Duffy's expenses, Senator Celine Hervieux-Payette tried to have Senator Gerstein removed as chairman of the Senate banking committee, until he either testified before the Senate or had his name cleared of all suspicion by the RCMP. Senator Gerstein ruled the motion out of order and has remained as chairman.

Left with few options to try to force Senator Gerstein or Michael Runia - a senior Deloitte partner - to testify as to what actually happened when Senator Gerstein called Mr. Runia to try to influence the audit of Senator Dufffy's expenses, so it wouldn't be so damaging to the Harper government, Senator Hervieux-Payette appealed to Senate ethics officer Lyse Ricard.

In her letter to Ms. Richard, Senator Hervieux-Payette said Gerstein tried to interfere in the work of the committee overseeing the audit “to promote the personal and financial interests of another senator, Senator Duffy.

RCMP documents appear to corroborate Senator Hervieux-Payette's allegation. The RCMP affidavit quotes a March 1 email from Nigel Wright, former chief of staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in which Mr. Wright asked Senator Gerstein to “work through senior contacts at Deloitte.” The RCMP said that on March 8, Mr. Wright received an email from former PMO staffer Patrick Rogers which stated that everyone involved was waiting on Gerstein’s contact — Runia — “to get the actual Deloitte auditor to agree” to ending Duffy’s audit, and that Gerstein would call back “once we have Deloitte locked in.”

Senator Hervieux-Payette wrote in her letter to Senate ethics officer Ms. Ricard, that these facts are sufficient to proceed with an investigation. Ms. Ricard had been investigating Senator Duffy and the $90,000 payment he received from Mr. Wright, but she suspended that probe when the RCMP confirmed they were investigating the backroom deal with Senator Duffy.

Moreover, court documents filed by RCMP Corporal Horton allege that Senator Gerstein, chairman of the Conservative Fund of Canada, asked Mr. Runia to try to persuade the auditors to drop their review of Senator Duffy. RCMP documents also state that Senator Gerstein told the RCMP he called Mr. Runia to see if there was anything he could share with him regarding the status of the audit. If the RCMP's version of events is true, then Senator Gerstein's above-mentioned statement to the RCMP is inconsistent with the truth. In the United States it’s a felony to lie to the FBI.

The truth in this Canadian senate scandal has not yet seen the light of day, in accordance with the principles of transparency and the rule of law – the foundations of a democracy.

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