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Tories hope to turn page on Senate scandal but new chapters keep emerging

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

OTTAWA - Conservatives are hoping a vote to suspend three errant senators without pay this week might help turn the page on a scandal that has jammed their political momentum for months.

MPs and a handful of senators are returning to Ottawa from Calgary after wrapping up a two-day biennial policy convention that just might have added another chapter or two to the saga however.

"Honestly, what most of our MPs are hearing from constituents is that they're sick of the whole story and the issue, they want to see something decisive done in terms of accountability and then to move on," Employment Minister Jason Kenney said in a weekend interview.

"I hope that the Senate makes a decision on that motion as soon as possible and I do hope that we can make some lemonade from the lemon of this whole issue by re-energizing efforts for fundamental Senate reform through democratization."

The government's deputy leader in the Senate predicted the vote to suspend, without pay, Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau will come Tuesday. Yonah Martin introduced a time limit on debate last week.

"I think for everybody in the Senate chamber it's been a pretty important issue ... and we're looking forward to just continuing the debates and bringing this to a reasonable end the way that Canadians deserve," said Martin.

But the convention may have raised even more questions than were settled in a story that is already riddled with loose ends.

The party's chief fundraiser, Sen. Irving Gerstein, used a Saturday convention speech to reveal what he knew about discussions to pay back Duffy's contested expenses. Gerstein has been mute since the story broke last May.

What had been a simmering expense scandal turned explosive when it was revealed Harper's former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, personally paid Duffy's $90,000 in ineligible claims — part of an alleged scheme to bury the scandal and limit political damage.

"I made it absolutely clear to Nigel Wright that the Conservative Fund Canada would not pay for Sen. Duffy's disputed expenses and it never did," Gerstein told close to 3,000 conventioneers in Calgary, adding the party did cover $12,000 (plus HST) for Duffy's legal bills.

But that's a different story than was communicated to the RCMP through Wright's lawyers. They said the party was "going to pay" Duffy's expenses when it thought they totalled $32,000, but balked when the pricetag tripled. Wright says he wound up paying out of his own pocket.

The lawyers specifically name Gerstein as one of four people Wright spoke to about his plans.

"Mr. Wright has no comment at this time to this latest characterization of events," Peter Mantas, Wright's lawyer, said in response to the Gerstein speech.

So who to believe: The millionaire, self-proclaimed Conservative "bagman," or the millionaire, former chief of staff to the prime minister?

It's worth noting that both Gerstein and Wright report or reported directly to Harper.

As Tom Flanagan wrote in a 2010 academic paper, the Conservative Fund "has only a handful of members, all of whom are appointed by the leader (Harper)."

The flat structure of the fund, Flanagan wrote in "Something Blue: Conservative Organization in an Era of Permanent Campaign," was a bone of contention at the 2005 party convention as "some saw (it) as giving too much unchecked power to the leader."

At the 2008 party convention, a resolution to have the party's elected national councillors added as members of the fund was defeated.

"The reality is that the leader controls the party through the fund, especially its chairman...," observed Flanagan, a former campaign director for Harper.

Harper's spokesman Jason MacDonald said in an email Sunday that any Gerstein-Wright negotiation over Duffy and party funds never came to his boss's ears.

"The prime minister was not a part of or made aware of any discussions about the repayment of Mr. Duffy's inappropriate expenses," said MacDonald. "Had he been he would not have approved of the scheme."

The Prime Minister's Office has revealed almost no new information about what happened behind the scenes, other than to lay complete blame for the affair on Wright.

Any revelations have come from the RCMP court filings, from media reports and from Duffy's dramatic testimony in the upper chamber. Wright has not spoken out publicly.

The Conservatives hope to use the Calgary convention to redirect public disgust with the affair away from Harper and the party and toward the issue of Senate reform.

"We can't lose sight of that big picture," Kenney told Global TV's West Block on Sunday, noting Canada needs a "democratic and accountable" Senate.

"We need fundamental reform of the Senate as an institution so that these things don't happen," Kenney reiterated on CTV's Question Period.

In the same interview, Kenney all but ruled out holding a national referendum on Senate abolition, calling it a "distraction" and noting the NDP's abolition policy has no path forward "given that there is not unanimity amongst the provinces."

So as the Senate reforms itself — an expression both Harper and Kenney used on the weekend — Canadians can expect more fireworks, likely including another bravura Senate performance by Duffy before any suspension vote this week.

Conservatives are hoping against hope that the public has tired of the he-said, she-said.

"At the end of the day, I don't think your average Canadian taxpayer has hours every day to follow the minutiae in this story," Kenney told CTV on Sunday.

— With files from Bruce Cheadle

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/the-canadian-press/131103/tories-hope-turn-page-senate-scandal-new-chapters-keep-emerg