© Canadian Press photo
P.E.I. Senator Mike Duffy’s spectacular fall from grace made him arguably one of the most infamous politicians in the country this year.
The $90,000 in expenses he claimed for his home in Ottawa with a cheque he secretly received from the prime minister’s then-chief of staff is a transaction that remains the focus of intense scrutiny, not only by the public and political opponents in the House of Commons, but also by the RCMP.
The Mounties allege Duffy committed fraud and breach of trust when he used the $90,000 cheque from Nigel Wright to pay for living expenses an external auditor determined were inappropriate.
The now independent senator for P.E.I. has been named The Guardian’s Newsmaker of 2013.
“It’s not often a Prince Edward Islander is in the running for national newsmaker of the year but it was this year in the person of Mike Duffy. He wasn’t named national newsmaker but he was a serious contender,” said Guardian managing editor Gary MacDougall.
“Unfortunately, for a province that prides itself on celebrating the positive achievements of its inhabitants, Duffy’s fame in 2013 was for all the wrong reasons as he became the poster boy for the Senate scandal.
“Although the Senate scandal for the most part unfolded in Ottawa, Duffy’s involvement in it became the topic of conversation at every coffee shop and gathering spot across P.E.I. He was clearly the top newsmaker on P.E.I. And it is quite possible he would have been the top national newsmaker if not for a certain Toronto mayor.”
It all began in late 2012 when the Senate launched an audit into residency claims of all senators after questions emerged about the primary residences of Senators Patrick Brazeau, Mac Harb and Duffy.
Duffy claims his primary residence is a cottage he owns in Cavendish.
All senators were asked to provide documentation to prove they live in the province they represent, including their driver’s licence, income tax return and health card.
Duffy drew the national media eye after it was revealed he contacted Health Minister Doug Currie’s office in January, looking to get a fast tracked P.E.I. health card to provide to Senate auditors to prove he lives in P.E.I.
Questions about the legitimacy of his housing expense claims were further raised in February when The Guardian reported P.E.I.’s taxation and property division office identifies Duffy and his wife, Heather, as non-resident owners of their Cavendish cottage and thus charge them a higher non-resident property tax.
Cavendish residents told The Guardian in February they have rarely, if ever, seen him in the area. His cottage was closed up for the winter, the road on which it lies left unplowed and impassable after a February snowstorm.
He explained a few days later his Cavendish cottage appeared unused because he spends his winters in Charlottetown.
“Canadians know I’m an honest man and that I wouldn’t cheat on my expenses,” he told reporters in Charlottetown on Feb. 19.
Three days later, Duffy announced he and his wife had decided they would voluntarily pay back his expenses, to avoid letting the issue “drag on.”
But the issue continued to dog not only Duffy, but also several other senators, including Harb, Brazeau and Pamela Wallin.
The issue came to a head in May when the prime minister’s office confirmed Duffy had repaid more than $90,000 in living expenses with a personal cheque from Harper’s then-chief of staff, Nigel Wright.
The money was alleged to have been part of a deal to have an internal Senate report on Duffy’s expenses whitewashed to go easy on the embattled P.E.I. senator.
Wright resigned from the PMO and Duffy quit the Conservative caucus, but the Senate expense scandal continued to dominate the news and political agenda in the weeks and months that followed.
Then in June, the RCMP confirmed it had launched a criminal investigation into the $90,000 transaction between Wright and Duffy. Wright is now facing allegations of bribery, fraud and breach of trust over the payment.
The scandal again reached an apex in the fall when the Conservative leader in the Senate, Claude Carignan, moved to have Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau suspended without pay as a result of “gross negligence” with their expenses.
Duffy made a series of dramatic speeches in the Red Chamber, alleging the PMO forced him to pay back his expenses and orchestrated a cover-up of the Wright payment.
But on Nov. 5, Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau were suspended without pay by a majority of their colleagues.
Duffy has now been stripped of all but his title and health benefits as the Senate and indeed the entire country await the outcome of the criminal investigation. He is now in Ottawa, recovering from open-heart surgery.
Duffy declined an invitation to comment on this story.
In selecting the 2013 Newsmaker of the Year, The Guardian Editorial Department also considered Opposition Leader Steven Myers and his rocky road to becoming interim party leader; former PC and Opposition leader Olive Crane, who was kicked out of the Tory caucus this year; Egmont MP Gail Shea, who was shuffled back into her previous role as federal fisheries minister at a time of crisis in the industry on P.E.I.; NDP Leader Mike Redmond, who has led his party to historic highs in recent CRA polls, and Premier Robert Ghiz, who marked his 10th year in elected office in 2013.
The Guardian also considered Marlene Giersdorf, the 30-year-old Montague mother who made national news for her lone protest of the employment insurance changes that came into effect in earlier this year.