Noted in Courtroom 33: Hubris. Wait, never mind, it’s gone ...

Former head of finance at the Senate on the stand as proceedings fly by in a spark of paper
Mike Duff
(CP Photo)

There’s something thrilling about spotting real, honest-to-God hubris out in the wild. 

Arrogance is a dime a dozen—like seeing a falcon hovering among the highrises of a major city—but real, honest-to-God hubris, when someone managed to transform arrogance into performance art, a little bit of theatre, is awful rare. It’s the ivory-billed woodpecker of human failings.

And we in Courtroom 33, where Sen. Mike Duffy is on trial on 31 bribery, breach of trust and fraud charges, just got to hear of this particular sighting second hand. That’ll do.

The birder in this case was Nicole Proulx, former head of finance at the Senate of Canada. This was Proulx’s second day in the witness box, and she’s already demonstrated herself to be direct, unfussy, pleasant, and as destructive to Duffy’s defence as anyone who’s appeared so far.

It was Proulx’s job to oversee the operation of shuttling money from here to there in the Senate of Canada, and among our august sober second thinkers, and she’s apparently someone who pays attention to things.

That’s not perhaps what Duffy and his pal Gerald Donohue thought, as they made clear in letters to Proulx complaining about how Donohue’s company, Maple Ridge Media Inc., was being handled by Senate bean-counters in 2012.

Although prosecutors now allege that Duffy was using Maple Ridge to move money around beyond Senate oversight, there were no such suspicions then. “Sen. Duffy, it is clear to us, given the very confusing and inaccurate documents described above, that there is something wrong in the Senate Finance department,” Donohue wrote in a letter clearly directed less at Duffy than at those rotten folks with the ledgers in the Senate.

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Proulx seemed terribly eager in the witness box to read the letters of grovelling apology she wrote to Duffy and Donohue in response. Maple Ridge, which ostensibly delivered editorial services to Duffy, “seemed to be an important supplier,” Proulx told the court. “And yes, as you saw, I apologized profusely.”

It was when Crown prosecutor Jason Neubauer brought up Jacqueline Lambert, the wonderfully understated yet glamorous makeup artist we met last week, that we first heard the sound of that rare bird beating the air with its wings.

“You’ve seen this already,” Neubauer, who hangs back from a killer point like Billie Holiday’s voice behind the beat. “An invoice issued by Jacqueline Lambert?”

The episode he referred to dates back to shortly after Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed Duffy, when he posed for an official portrait to hang in Centre Block.

Lambert, who has done Duffy’s face since the days he was a broadcaster on CJOH, came in for this job too, staying on to be a second pair of eyes for the photographer. Lambert’s invoice to the Senate later raised flags at finance, Proulx testified.

“It was eventually brought to my attention—what do you do with this? This is unique!” Proulx said. “My reaction was—’No.’ I could understand that, you know, it was for an official photograph.”

Makeup, Proulx maintained in the witness box, isn’t parliamentary business: “It was personal.”

She made this point with Duffy’s staff, indicating that he should pay it out of his own pocket, and that she would mark the invoice as having been withdrawn, in an informal way.

But for Duff, that was not on. “I was told no—that Sen. Duffy wanted to pursue this,” Proulx testified.

Remember that at issue here was $300 worth of pancake foundation.

“I ended up writing the letter with an official rejection of the claim,” Proulx said.

The letter was addressed to the “Honourable Michael Duffy.”

In it, Proulx explained the issue to him in this way (and it’s worth noting the language here, given the outcome): “finance directorate is required to insure claims and substantiating data are in conformity with rules and policies of the Senate prior to reimbursement …

“Unfortunately, the type of services that were provided by Mrs. Lambert is not an expenditure that is allowed under the above Senate guidelines.”

This, you may unsurprised to learn, wasn’t the end of things for Duff. “If you wish to pursue this matter,” Proulx added, “you may submit a request to the Standing Committee on Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration for its consideration.”

That sounded about right to Duffy.

It was only in the moments immediately prior to Duffy’s makeup problem coming up on Internal Economy’s agenda that the senator from Prince Edward Island—or perhaps someone with a better grasp of the important than him—dropped the idea of bringing this up on the floor for discussion.

And yet—that wasn’t that the end of the story either. Because the reason Lambert turned up as a witness in Courtroom 33 at all was that another of her invoices got paid with public money.

This second one, involving a G8 event in May 2010, when Lambert made up Duffy and Prime Minister Harper, got dealt with through Donohue’s Maple Ridge Media.

Maple Ridge Media issued many, many cheques to pay for ostensibly parliamentary business; in doing so, it allegedly evaded the oversight of Senate finance people like Proulx. Including for makeup.

In other words, after Duffy learned that looking good on camera wasn’t anything the public would pay for, he seems to have found another way to get the taxpayer to do just that.

Much of today’s proceedings flew by in a spray of paper, with Neubauer flashing invoice after invoice across the large flat-screen televisions positioned around the courtroom. In his questioning of Proulx he progressed in pedantic fashion, inexorably, as though following a recipe for checkmate in a book.

Over and over again, Duffy’s signature flew by too on the great screens, a scrawl like the erratic dashes on a Richter scale, or the readings of a lie detector.

But Neubauer’s instrument is Proulx, who in her testimony, the flashbacks she delivers of times past with Duff, appears always polite, reasonable, appealing. Her examination-in-chief is all but dismantling the defence of Donald Bayne, who has suggested in his cross-examinations that nothing is clear about the Senate, that it is a topsy-turvy world worthy of Escher, and that Sen. Duffy did not understand it, could not be expected to understand it.

In muddling through, Bayne seems to want to argue, Duffy behaved as other senators did.

Some of that remains to be seen. (At least part of Proulx’s testimony did seem nearly far-fetched, as when she made ordering photographs through the Senate sound as byzantine a process as buying bread in the former Soviet Union.) But not all appears unclear.

Duffy, it may be reasonable to conclude, knew enough about Senate rules to know this: that if he wanted to get his makeup paid, it was best to circumvent them.

Meanwhile, you can still see Duffy, from time to time, doing what he’s best at: holding court, like he used to do on TV.

There he is, one on one with a juridically frocked gentleman on the first floor smiling while he talks; in corners with a crony and his lawyer, gesturing meaningfully, throwing his hands up; or recounting anecdotes to the small groups of well-wishers who parade through Courtroom 33.

Then it’s back to sitting there and looking dark behind his lawyers. There it is, flashing in the trees. Hubris. We may catch another glimpse of it before we’re through.

Court reporter Nicholas Köhler on the Duffy trial