OTTAWA – Behind closed doors, the Senate rules at the heart of Sen. Mike Duffy’s sensational expense-claim trial are quietly undergoing an overhaul.
A small group of senators, under orders from the Senate committee that oversees Senate spending, have been reviewing the rules for more than a year with an eye towards making them easier for senators, staffers and the public to understand.
The senators have looked at everything from the definitions of primary and secondary residence — an issue that was a central problem in Duffy’s case — to details like who has the authority to hire and fire staff working in senators’ offices.
Conservative Sen. Leo Housakos, chairman of the internal economy committee, said the goal of the review is to “remove some of the ambiguity” and further tighten spending rules to prevent abuse as much as possible.
“If there’s somebody who wants to bend the rules in the House of Commons, in the Senate in private enterprise…they will. I don’t care how good or how clear (the rules) are,” Housakos said.
“Our goal as an organization is to be as vigilant as possible, as clear as possible.”
Housakos said the Senate will also soon be unveiling a new uniform expense disclosure system and plans to post Senate attendance records online.
In Thursday’s acquittal of Duffy, Ontario Court Justice Charles Vaillancourt denounced the Senate administrative rules, or SARs, as “inadequate, poorly communicated, (and) criteria-lacking.”
The rules constitute “bad policy” that fostered problematic practices and mistakes by senators, including Duffy, Vaillancourt said.
Thursday’s verdict — Duffy was cleared of all 31 fraud, breach of trust and bribery charges he faced — marked the end of a protracted three-year saga and ensured Duffy would be able to return to the upper chamber with all rights and privileges.
Housakos also acknowledged that the Senate’s treatment of Duffy — he was suspended without pay, along with fellow senators Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau — may not have been entirely fair.
The verdict in the trial has left him wondering whether the Senate shouldn’t have handled the issue differently, he added.
Duffy won’t be able to apply to the Senate for the two years of lost pay, but could apply to the Senate for help covering his legal costs because the allegations were related to his actions as a senator, Housakos said.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday that the Duffy saga demonstrates a need for the Senate to be more accountable to Canadians.
“One of the things that we’ve seen — from not just this particular trial, but from many of the challenges that the Senate has gone through over the past years — is a greater need for openness, transparency, accountability that quite frankly the Senate has work to do on,” Trudeau said during a news conference at the United Nations.
As Duffy’s trial was ending, the start of another Senate legal battle was just getting underway.
The Senate is on the hunt for an outside lawyer to help recoup almost $528,000 in improper expense claims filed by seven retired senators who were among 30 senators flagged in the auditor general’s June 2015 report, but opted not to challenge the findings through an independent arbitration process.
The seven who owe money are retired Liberal senators Sharon Carstairs, Marie-P. Charette-Poulin, Rose-Marie Losier-Cool, Bill Rompkey, and Rod Zimmer, as well as former Conservatives Don Oliver and Gerry St. Germain.
“We’re going to take legal action in each of those cases,” Housakos said.
The expenses in question are not all that different from the ones that landed Duffy in court — a point not lost Thursday on Duffy’s lawyer, Donald Bayne.
“I’m sure all of you, like me, could make a good argument that some of the things that senators are allowed to travel across the country for at considerable expense … may or may not pass a value-for-money test,” he said after the verdict.
“There has to be that kind of assessment on Parliament Hill of expenditure of public money. Those kind of rules did not exist in Mike Duffy’s day.”
A list of Senate spending rule changes
Sen. Mike Duffy’s criminal trial exposed the murky and sometimes convoluted spending rules in the Senate. Here are some of the changes that have happened since 2013 when the spending scandal first broke:
1) The Senate administrative rules once said that senators were considered to be acting on “their personal honour” and “presumed to have acted honourably in carrying out their administrative functions.” That rule died in 2013, ending the so-called honour system in the Senate.
2) Senators were once able to submit a written note asking for reimbursement of taxi rides that cost less than $30. The Senate now requires receipts for every ride.
3) The Senate’s travel policy used to allow senators the option of charging the Senate for international travel. Now they can only travel internationally if it is part of committee business and need to go to the internal economy committee for any other overseas trips.
4) Senators were once able to file for a secondary residence with little documentation. Now they have to annually provide a copy of their tax return, driver’s licence and health card.
5) The ethics code once only dealt with pecuniary interests where someone could financially benefit. Now, the ethics code is broader with harsher sanctions to allow the Senate to punish any of its members who the Senate believes has acted in a way that is unbecoming of a member of the upper chamber.