OTTAWA — A Senate committee is leaving open the door to pay the legal fees incurred by a former Liberal senator, who says the upper chamber has a responsibility to cover the $82,000 she spent after an audit flagged her expanses as questionable.
In deciding to take a little longer to deal with the request from Sharon Carstairs, the internal economy committee was warned Thursday that it could set a precedent for dozens of others, including Sen. Mike Duffy, to seek compensation even after they were previously denied.
Auditor general Michael Ferguson's review of Carstairs's accounts two years ago raised questions about her primary residence and $7,528 in living expenses and her case ended up with the RCMP. She said she sought legal advice to help her through the process.
The Mounties found no reason to conduct an official investigation into Carstairs's spending, or that of the other 29 senators named in the report. In early December, the internal economy committee decided not to take her or any other senators to court to recoup the questioned expenses.
The Senate ordinarily doesn't cover legal fees for a senator subject to a criminal investigation or criminal charges. It will cover expenses in certain cases to protect members of the upper chamber from unfair charges.
"Mine was an unfair charge," Carstairs said in an interview.
"There is absolutely no evidence that I broke any rule of the Senate whatsoever and if there was any doubt about that, that was put firmly to rest by the (Duffy verdict) statements on residency issues."
On Thursday morning, Carstairs made her case before the committee that the upper chamber should cover her legal fees, which were almost 11 times the amount the auditor general questioned.
Carstairs left the Senate in 2011, two years before the upper chamber called in Ferguson to examine every expense filed between April 2011 and March 2013. For much of her 17 years in the Senate, Carstairs taught rookies about expense rules.
When she retired, Carstairs said she asked the Senate's finance department if she should keep her spending records. The response was she could shred the documents because there hadn't been an issue with her expenses.
After Ferguson's audit, Carstairs was told on June 5, 2015 that her file was being sent to the RCMP for review over questions about her declaration of primary and secondary residence. Ferguson's report questioned whether she lived primarily in Manitoba, even though, Carstairs said, she had a Manitoba driver's license and health card and paid taxes in the province.
The questions were the same ones Duffy faced during his criminal trial into his Senate expenses. When he was acquitted in April 2016, the judge in the case had "eviscerated" the Senate's housing rules, Carstairs said.
Duffy has unsuccessfully used that verdict to have the Senate cover his legal bill incurred as a result of the trial.
Duffy first asked the committee's three-member executive for financial help in June, only to be told in August that his request was denied. In early November, he asked for an appeal hearing in front of the full committee, which was agreed to after debate later that same month.
But the transcript of the debate concerned Duffy and his lawyer, who felt that senator wouldn't get a fair hearing before his colleagues because the committee appeared "overwhelmingly" against granting Duffy's funding request.
"Sen. Duffy will not take part in such a sham process," reads a Nov. 30, 2016 letter to the committee from lawyer Donald Bayne, who called the committee's conduct "a discredit to fair decision-making."
The Senate has covered almost $102,000 in legal fees for five senators who went through an arbitration process set up to dispute expense claims arising from Ferguson's audit.
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Jordan Press, The Canadian Press