Nicole Proulx muddies #duffytrial with clarity

Day 12: A hint at the Crown’s case against the senator dissolves into Senate rules

Mike Duff

Like a good novel, the trial of Sen. Mike Duffy enticed us yesterday with vague clues about where the action of these proceedings will lead, then today thrust us back into the drudgery of Senate finance rules, arcane Red Chamber policy—frustrated, but still hungry.

We needed those clues, and we’ll clutch them tight as we trudge through the dry precincts of the Crown’s case.

Of course this is no novel, and the fate of a real man hangs in the balance. And yet the mystery remains.

Duffy faces 31 charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust here in Courtroom 33, in Ottawa’s Elgin Street courthouse, and the conclusion of his trial will no doubt illuminate us on the question of his guilt or innocence. What remains unknown is how the trial will get us there: through what terrain, following which characters?

    This morning, the gentleman we met yesterday, who was so enlightening on so many points, and yet so vague on others—Matthew Donohue—returned for cross-examination. But the nuggets of suggestive detail he presented earlier were in shorter supply this morning, when defence lawyer Donald Bayne led him through cross.

    Yesterday, his testimony in broad strokes sketched out a picture of the Donohue clan, and of the businesses its members—and principally the patriarch, Gerald Donohue—were engaged in while Duffy remained a senator in good standing (he’s now under suspension, ejected from the Conservative caucus). Gerald is the man who signed so many of the cheques that paid for Duffy’s public activities, and Duffy’s predicament here is somehow wrapped up in the Donohues and their companies, Maple Ridge Media Inc. and Ottawa ICF.

    How? We’ll have to wait and see what the Crown will say about that.

    With Matthew’s departure—too soon in his new dark suit and white shirt, less the thug of yesterday—we were confronted with Nicole Proulx, head of the finance directorate at the time of Duffy’s appointment to the Senate. Proulx wore a tartan blazer and a khaki wool skirt, and wasted no time making it clear that not all Senate administration officials are cut from the same cloth as Sonia Makhlouf, a human resources director whose unfocused testimony last week was of little help to the Crown’s case against Duffy.

    Under an examination led by Crown prosecutor Jason Neubauer, Proulx, who has an easy smile and the kind of dual mastery of French and English you only really find among Ottawa public servants—the bureaucrat’s dialect—suddenly made the Senate sound like a reasonable place, full of perfectly intelligible rules, where functionaries do more than just rubber stamp.

    That’s not the picture that Bayne, during his cross-examinations of retired Senate law clerk Mark Audcent, and then of Makhlouf earlier in the trial, left us with. Bayne wants Justice Charles Vaillancourt to see the Senate as a morass of hard-to-follow guidelines, contradictory rules, and out-of-control bureaucratic freelancing. No wonder Bayne today took to standing, interrupting his “friend” Neubauer’s questions, to point out that Proulx is in no position to interpret the Senate Administrative Rules, that small bible governing the place.

    Bayne’s case is allergic to the clarity Proulx brings to the issue of primary residence and the proper way to get reimbursed for Senate-related expenses.

    Very nearly through her sheer confidence alone, Proulx was able to dispel Bayne-sown doubts about what constitutes public business, and what goods and services Senators can get on the public dime.

    Upon his appointment as a senator for Prince Edward Island, Duffy immediately began claiming living expenses he incurred even while living in the same Kanata house he’d occupied for years—more than $80,000 over the course of four years, Proulx told court.

    But on the question of the location of Duffy’s principal residence—Ottawa or P.E.I.—Proulx offered something less than a metaphysical answer.

    “As always, there is no substitute for a senator’s own good judgment,” she read from a Senate handbook during her testimony—”judgment” being a beacon of a word, worth following through a fog. What about expenses on contracts for work, ostensibly completed by Maple Ridge Media Inc., the ones Duffy vouched for by scrawling his name across the paperwork? “It’s not just a matter of getting a signature,” Proulx told the court. “There are checks and balances.”

    And all of it, the Proulx we know through the Crown’s questions, is clear, transparent, knowable. We’ll have to see what Bayne makes of her. We’ll get our fill: Proulx, a key witness, is likely to remain in the witness box for days.

    By the by, it’s said that in the realm of sports broadcasting, the cameraman would prefer to cover basketball than baseball.

    Basketball is fast-paced, a relentless game, and the camera operator just follows the ball along its odyssey, the way it gets passed from hand to hand.

    Baseball, on the other hand, requires on the part of the cameraman constant vigilance, over long stretches of inactivity, deserts of monotony, broken up by flash floods of hubbub you’ve got to be on top of everything to capture.

    So goes the Duffy trial. Spectators, even members of court staff, made a hobby today of stifling yawns, their fists raised to hide from others the horrors of their uvulas. That was today. Lightning, in the form of outrageous and revealing testimony, has already now and then brightened the corners of this room. Pretty soon, it will break the place open.

     Court reporter Nicholas Köhler on the Duffy trial

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