National Newswatch

OTTAWA — Mike Duffy walked out of an Ottawa court a free man Thursday after a judge cleared him of all charges while at the same time delivering a scathing indictment of the Prince Edward Island senator's former political masters.

Duffy sat almost totally still throughout the four hours Justice Charles Vaillancourt spent dismantling the Crown's argument that the senator had deliberately defrauded the public purse by claiming invalid living and office expenses and had engaged in corrupt behaviour when it came to paying that money back. 

Vaillancourt all but wagged his finger in admonishment at the Crown as he repeatedly questioned their decision not to extensively cross-examine Duffy or try to challenge his testimony with witnesses of their own during the 62-day trial.

But the justice's harshest words were aimed at the Prime Minister's Office under Stephen Harper and its conduct regarding a decision by Harper's former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, to give Duffy $90,000 to repay his living expenses.

Vaillancourt said he did not see it the same way as the Crown, which had argued Duffy's actions were driven by "deceit, manipulations and carried out in a clandestine manner" when he took the cheque.

"I find that if one were to substitute the PMO, Nigel Wright and others for Senator Duffy in the aforementioned sentence that you would have a more accurate statement," Vaillancourt said. 

Vaillancourt said he found Duffy a credible witness and that he was subject to intense pressure from the PMO and its staff, who only had one goal: make the political storm created by Duffy's expense issues go away.

He said the email traffic between Wright, Duffy and other PMO officials exposed a chief of staff ordering senators around like "pawns on a chess board," and saw senators "meekly acquiesce" and then "robotically" march out to repeat their scripted lines.

"The political, covert, relentless, unfolding of events is mind boggling and shocking," Vaillancourt said.

Duffy's face showed no emotion as he rose from his courtroom seat following the verdict, but he was greeted with hugs from his friends, family and even his lawyer before he left court and faced a throng of reporters.

But like he did at the end of every day of his trial on 31 counts of fraud, breach of trust and bribery, he climbed into his car without saying a word.

His lawyer Donald Bayne called the verdict a resounding acquittal.

"I would say that Sen. Duffy has been subjected for the last two and half, three years, to more public humiliation than probably any Canadian in history," said Bayne.

Duffy can now resume sitting in the Senate if he chooses as his acquittal requires the upper chamber to immediately reinstate him.

In addition to the three bribery and breach of trust charges connected to the cheque from Wright, Duffy was charged with 29 other counts related to his residency, office and travel expenses.

Duffy had filed expense claims for his long-time Ottawa home, maintaining he was entitled to the money because a P.E.I. cottage was his primary residence. The Crown argued he barely ever set foot in the province and was seeking to make a buck.

But Vaillancourt ruled the senator had sought repeated advice on the subject of his residency and entitlements from as high an official as Harper himself and "honestly and reasonably believed" that advice and acted on it.  

The largest chunk of charges dealt with Duffy's travel and expense claims, including $65,000 in Senate money that was funnelled through companies run by Duffy's friend Gerald Donohue for expenses like make-up costs, photos, paying a volunteer and hiring his personal trainer as a consultant.

The Crown referred to the money as a slush fund designed to get around Senate expense rules and Vaillancourt agreed that the way it was set up had a number of shortcomings, but it wasn't a crime.

"The circumstances of this case are a far cry from the usual fraud/breach of trust playbook," Vaillancourt said of the Donohue arrangements. 

"I was not presented with evidence suggesting expensive wining and dining, lavish living or pricey gambling junkets, or secret financial hideaways. Now, fraud and breach of trust can occur outside the aforementioned examples; however, the thrust of all of Sen. Duffy's perceived misadventures was focused on Senate business."

Each of the trips Duffy took had legitimate reasons, even if they also included personal business such as the impending birth of a grandchild or an impromptu visit to a dog show to acquire a puppy, Vaillancourt ruled.

He acknowledged not everyone may be comfortable with Duffy's approach. 

"But you know certain uncomfortableness does not even begin to approach proof of criminal conduct beyond a reasonable doubt."

Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press

The Canadian Press
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