RCMP Senate inquiry looms over Harper government as return to Parliament nears

Senators and staff prepare for RCMP probe into inappropriate spending.

Waiting for the other shoe to drop.

That's the mood on the Hill as both the RCMP and the Auditor General poke and prod around the Senate spending scandal.

Since the first Information To Obtain Production Orders (ITO) landed like a ton of bricks in November, the Conservative Government has been nervously silent on the next round of evidence that will come out from the federal investigators.

Senators and their staff, meanwhile, are preparing for what promises to be a deeply intrusive probe into any inappropriate spending on their behalf.

When it comes to the next round of ITOs, Corporal Greg Horton, the RCMP officer tasked with the sensitive investigation, is digging around for evidence supporting charges against suspended Senator Mike Duffy and former chief of staff Nigel Wright.

Horton's original findings, which led him to believe that there was a credible criminal case to be made, uncovered a huge email trail that connected the plan to pay off Senator Duffy's supposedly fraudulent expenses with Conservative Party money, initially, and later with Wright's own cash.  

When he submitted those documents, Horton made a second request for more documents. Those promise to piece together the final missing pieces of who knew what, and what, in the Senate scandal.

Half of the documents requested -- proof of the paper trial from a line of credit that Duffy took out to cover the cheque repayment, and the actual payment of the $90,000 itself -- were later forked over by Duffy's lawyer.

The balance of the documents still to be released are what's worrying the Conservatives.

As the return to Parliament looms, few, if any, political staffers know when to expect the next round of documents from the investigators. Conservatives staffers acknowledge that it could be anytime, and that they won't be good for the Prime Minister, as he tries to maintain that he knew nothing of his Chief of Staff's deal, and that he did not orchestrate a cover-up to stop the public from finding out.

Though it seems unlikely that the next round of emails will directly implicate the Prime Minister, as correspondence from several staffers in his office already came to light when the first ITO was released, with only vague allusions to what Harper was informed of.

This time around, the RCMP are collecting emails from the big four -- Senators David Tkachuk, chair of the Board of Internal Economy tasked with conducting audits of the Senators' expenses; Carolyn Stewart Olsen, who sat on that committee; Majory LeBreton, then Leader of the Government in the Senate; and, of course, Mike Duffy.

While those emails promise to reveal to what extent Stewart Olsen and Tkachuk may have edited the final report on Duffy's expenses -- "whitewashed" as NDP leader Thomas Mulcair puts it -- it could also reveal exactly what hand, if any, Duffy played in his disgrace. To this point, Duffy has adamantly maintained that he has done nothing wrong and that he is the victim of some imprecise rules and a Prime Minister with no stomach for the air of misdeeds.

The one PMO staffer that we didn't hear from in Horton's ITO, however, is former legal adviser Benjamin Perrin. When the RCMP originally asked, the PMO said that, as Perrin was no longer an employee, his emails had been deleted.

By the beginning of December, however, that story changed -- the PMO learned that its sister body, the Privacy Council Office, had actually retained the emails. There was a mea culpa, and an assurance that those emails would be provided.

So whenever this next round of documents does hit the table, we'll know more of what role the Prime Minister's special legal adviser played in orchestrating the deal -- one he says he had no hand in, but which Wright's emails suggest he did.

Meanwhile, those in the Senate IT department are becoming increasingly nervous as the investigation continues to drag on, one Senate staffer told the Vancouver Observer. The RCMP's request for documents have them terrified that they're turning over the missing piece in what has becoming an increasingly dragged-out affair.

And it's not just Duffy on the hook. In December, RCMP investigators seized calendars from the Senate that detailed Senator Pamela Wallin's daily schedule on days when she may have claimed Senate expenses for private or political travel. No charges have yet been laid against Wallin.

And as those criminal investigation plays out, a second, parallel, investigation is ongoing from the Auditor General in the Senate.

A draft of the audit plan, obtained by the Vancouver Observer, says the auditors will be making the rounds through the entire Senate -- except those singled out by the RCMP for investigation.

The report hints at just how intrusive and intense this process may be, nothing that "in certain circumstances, interviews may be conducted under oath," and that they "may access information held by third parties," in effect opening the doors for a Parliamentary audit of little precedent in Canadian history.

A letter to staff and Senators, accompanying the audit plan, informed them that they will be interviewed by the auditors -- "either together or separately" -- and instructed them to hand over any relevant documents within five business days. Attached was a draft response, where those in the Red Chamber were expected to sign off that "I, as a Senator for the Senate of Canada, will comply with any requests that you or your staff make for access to relevant documents."

A follow-up presentation to Senators and their staff was conducted by the auditors.

Some Senate staffers have their backs up over the process, noting that the Auditor General is responsible to the House of Commons, not the Senate, and that the terms of the audit are onerous and bordering on unconstitutional.

One staffer says not to expect much when the audit eventually comes down at the end of 2014. The Auditor General has an obligation to identify systemic mismanagement of public dollars, and to identify failures of regulation -- it does not have the responsibility to identify specific Parliamentarians like a forensic audit would.

Nevertheless, the three investigations -- into Duffy and Wright, Wallin, and the other Senators -- promise to deliver further aftershocks, further destabilizing already-shaken faith in this government and the institution of the Senate.


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