Suspended senators will accrue pension eligibility while banished, Senate says

OTTAWA – Turns out the three senators at the heart of the Senate expenses scandal haven’t been booted entirely off the public payroll after all.

Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau have been suspended without pay for up to two years, but their time in political purgatory will still count towards the six years of service needed to become eligible to collect a pension.

That’s what the law requires, the Senate said Thursday.

But Treasury Board President Tony Clement, the chief guardian of the public purse, called it a “glitch” and vowed to change the law, if necessary, to ensure the trio don’t qualify for a pension.

“I have already directed my department to look at any kind of regulation change that is necessary to ensure that this is not pensionable time,” Clement said Thursday on his way into the House of Commons.

“This glitch is contrary to the intent of the Senate resolution (to suspend the trio without pay). It’s against the spirit of the Senate resolution and we will make sure that things conform to the spirit, as well as the letter, of the Senate resolution.”

Wallin’s lawyer has threatened legal action if the government attempts to tamper with the outcast senator’s pension eligibility. But Clement was not daunted by the prospect of a costly lawsuit.

“See you in court,” he said.

The trio were suspended Tuesday — without pay or benefits, other than dental, life and health insurance — for alleged “gross negligence” in claiming inappropriate expenses.

The suspensions are for the duration of the current parliamentary session, which could continue until 2015 — the same year the three would ordinarily be deemed to have served sufficient time to be eligible for a pension.

Duffy, the eldest of the three at 67, could immediately begin collecting an annual pension of $58,264, according to the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

The Senate will review the legal advice — provided by Clement’s department to the upper house — and look at its “options,” including seeking other legal advice, said Claude Carignan, the government leader in the Senate.

“Sometimes you have legal advice and another lawyer can say another thing,” he said.

“It’s not a rush. We are not rushed here. So we will take the time that we need to take to study our options.”

Carignan frankly acknowledged the government didn’t think through what he dubbed the “little technicalities” of suspending the three former Conservative star senators. Its first priority was to pass the motions to suspend the trio.

“We (were) waiting the decision first.”

Liberal Senate leader James Cowan had a different take on it: “I’ve said from the beginning that they’re making this whole thing up as they go along. This is just the latest chapter.”

He noted that the government specifically rejected his motion to refer the suspension motions to a committee, which could have given Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau a fair hearing and studied all the ramifications of proceeding in such a way.

To turn around now and change the law retroactively to ensure the suspension period doesn’t count as pensionable service would be unfair, Cowan added.

Another question remains unanswered: whether Duffy, who has a heart condition, might be eligible for a disability allowance.

Under the Parliament of Canada Act, a senator who is 65 or older and incapacitated by a proven medical condition can resign and receive a disability allowance equal to 70 per cent of his or her salary — a comfortable $94,649 a year.

Asked about it last week, Carignan mistakenly said senators have no disability insurance. On Thursday, he said he doubts an allowance could be given to a senator who has been suspended without pay.

Senate administration would not clarify the situation.

“We don’t respond to hypothetical questions,” said Senate spokeswoman Annie Joannette.

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