The mysterious #duffytrial comes briefly into focus

Day 11: Gerald Donohue’s son takes the stand
Suspended Senator Mike Duffy leaves the Ontario Court of Justice, in Ottawa, Canada, April 8, 2015. Duffy, a former ally of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, is on trial for fraud and bribery in a high-profile case that could hurt the ruling Conservatives’ chances of winning an election this October. Blair Gable/Reuters

Duffy Trial 20150420

The trial of Sen. Mike Duffy folds within itself so many moving parts, so much that animates contemporary Canadian political life, and yet so much apparently tawdry business dealings also, that it’s been difficult, now and then, to get height enough on the situation to see it all at one glance.

Today, Courtroom 33 achieved some of that altitude: suddenly, the disparate things that in aggregate make up the mystery at the centre of this Ottawa circus came into focus, then blurred all over again, concealed by clouds.

Duffy, facing 31 bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges, retained his gloomy composure throughout; it was less than a good day for the defence.

The tantalizing glimpse of the Crown’s case in macro came in the main thanks to the testimony of one Matthew Donohue, the 30-year-old scion of Gerald Donohue, a man who, throughout these proceedings, has remained a much-mentioned but otherwise shadowy figure.

This morning, court heard, in the course of a bit of housekeeping chatter from Holmes, that Gerald, slated for imminent appearance as a witness here for days, went into hospital last week, and has only just emerged, “weak,” but “anxious to get this over with.”

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The spectre of Donohue père has hovered over the action in connection to Duffy-related expense payments coming from Maple Ridge Media Inc. and Ottawa ICF, companies Crown prosecutors have mentioned as part of the slush-fund narrative they’re spinning around the senator.

Mark Holmes and Jason Neubauer, who are tag-teaming the Crown’s case, have demonstrated the way payments from these companies went out to all manner of people and businesses, resolving debts incurred during Duffy’s apparently intense parliamentary life.

One of these recipients blew into the room this morning like the ghost of politics past. His eyes were dark, his skin pale and lined, his silvery hair just this side of unkempt. The belt of the trench coat he tossed onto the gallery’s front bench was frayed, and he peered into the gallery from the witness box like the captain of a haunted ship—a bona fide Ancient Mariner.

It was L. Ian MacDonald, one-time TV critic at the Montreal Gazette.

That’s the other incredible thing about watching the Duffy trial in person. Yes, there are the entitlements of sinecure it’s probably reasonable to see in all this trial’s weird cheques. But there’s also the way the trial’s sweep, if you hang in there, starts to draw into itself the whole breadth of political life in Ottawa over the past 40 years, and in particular that crucial moment when a chasm opened up between old John A. Tory conservatism and the arrival of the Reform party in Ottawa. That moment the barbarians invaded and transformed this city. In this sense, Courtroom 33 is the aleph of Ottawa, and nothing captures the vertigo of that fact better than watching Brian Mulroney’s speechwriter—L. Ian MacDonald, to take us back to the point at hand—breeze into the joint.

“I’m a Red Tory,” MacDonald told Holmes. “An endangered species.”

MacDonald’s illustrious career in journalism came to a crashing end thanks to his association with Mulroney, and when the Progressive Conservatives lost to Jean Chrétien, he turned to magazine editing and took on corporate and other clients. One of those, it emerged, was Duffy.

Duff ordered MacDonald’s speech, “Why I am a Conservative,” like a bespoke suit: it was to be a “high road” piece of oratory with a “sense of history,” MacDonald said—”in other words, from John A to Harper.”

Then MacDonald, in a revelation that told journalists everywhere that they’re mired in the wrong profession, described how he invoiced $7,350 for this work, which took a week and ran maybe 3,000 words.

MacDonald was told—and even exchanged emails to this effect with the man himself—to send the invoice to Gerald Donohue at Maple Ridge Media Inc. In this way, MacDonald’s association with this case settled into the received pattern.

But it was a pattern that, to come full circle in this summation of the day’s events, was news to Matt Donohue.

Donohue fils arrived in the courtroom tieless, in a black dress shirt and in a grey suit. He has thick black hair and the kind of Irish face you used to see on kids in Jimmy Cagney movies.

In a move you can’t always count on Holmes to make, the prosecution walked young Donohue through an all-that-David-Copperfield-kind-of-crap preamble: we learned he attended West Carleton High School, that between 2003 and 2006 he earned a business administration degree from Algonquin College, and that he later sought a second degree in firefighting from the same.

Somehow, it also emerged, Donohue managed to juggle those studies with his role as a major shareholder, and for some length of time director, of Maple Ridge Media, which later became Ottawa ICF. Matthew Donohue told court he held 40 per cent of the company, but could not explain how or when he had come to acquire it. His mother, Gail, held the other 60 per cent, and only she possessed cheque-signing authority.

Could Gerald sign cheques? “Not to the best of my knowledge,” Matthew said.

Which came as a shock to observers in the room, who for days have been seeing cheques issued by Maple Ridge Media signed by the very same Gerald Donohue, flashing, larger than life, on the room’s big-screen TVs. Make of this what you will: by day’s end, we’d also see Maple Ridge Media cheques signed by Gerald, made payable to Matthew Donohue.

Lots of things did not add up in Matthew’s testimony. Try, for example, the fact that Maple Ridge Media was, for the duration of Matthew’s involvement, not a media company at all, but focused entirely on the construction industry, and in the “insulated concrete forms” trade in particular (these being foam sandwiches with concrete and rebar fillings—as Matthew described them, “pretty much giant Lego blocks”).

Matthew was hugely cool in the witness box, responding unrattled to the barrage of what defence lawyer Donald Bayne eventually complained were “very suggestive” questions. Indeed, at times it almost appeared as though Holmes was quizzing the young Donohue on his real knowledge of the construction business, which he undertook all by himself for much of the last decade, until a couple of years ago. Holmes appeared to remain skeptical of all of this.

Much of that incredulity stuck on Gerald Donohue’s role in the company, which the son maintained was nothing whatsoever—beyond, that is, doing some bookkeeping, giving his son lifts—the kinds of thing any dad would do to ease his kid’s passage into the world. “There was nothing more than giving me advice, helping me build my business skills,” the boy said.

Gerald, as it turns out, could not have worked: he was on disability until turning 65 (on the question of when that occurred, Matthew also could not help), circumstances that prohibited him from keeping a job.

And Matthew appeared entirely unperturbed when Holmes began showing him Maple Ridge Media cheques signed by daddy—lots of them, as well as lots of others representing many tens of thousands of dollars passing through Matthew’s personal bank account. At a time when Matthew was still in his mid-20s. The money came in the form of Matthew’s Maple Ridge Media salary, dividends and performance bonuses.

Or, in another case Holmes highlighted, a Government of Canada cheque for $10,500 made out to Maple Ridge in 2009.

“As a 40 per cent owner of the business, and a company director, can you tell me why you received this cheque?” he asked.

“Tax refund?” Matthew said—whether he was stating it or asking it was hard to know.

Soon after, Matthew received the same amount in the form of a Maple Ridge cheque signed by his mother.

Meanwhile, his father was signing company cheques payable to himself—ostensibly to rent property he already owns.

Did seeing so many company cheques signed by a man who was himself without signing authority give him pause, Holmes asked Matthew Donohue.

“I don’t see an issue with him being compensated for expenses on my behalf,” Matthew replied, an answer that, oddly, the Crown left as is, despite it not addressing the question.

What does it all mean?

The Crown is giving few hints in the courtroom, but the case is getting built—like foam Lego blocks filled with cement—by increments.

It was all—Maple Ridge, construction, cheques signed by a man without signing authority—a long way from the Senate and from Mike Duffy.

But Duffy merited a mention at the end of the day. How did Matthew know him? He is a friend of Gerry’s, Matthew said. They appeared, Matthew went on to say, to have business dealings together, dealings that seemed to involve Maple Ridge Media, and later Ottawa ICF, but which Matthew saw as being none of his business. And why not? Matthew explained his father and Duffy had established Maple Ridge Media years ago as part of a veterans project; it only made sense that what they did now might involve that same company.

And besides, Matthew’s interest in Maple Ridge Media and Ottawa ICF was drifting prior to the company’s closure; he’s now focused on becoming a firefighter.

Had, Holmes wanted to know, Matthew ever been to Duffy’s home?

Sometimes he’d drive his father over there, to Kanata, and step in for a minute when he dropped him off. He listened as the two men exchanged what Matthew called today “old man gossip.”

Just the kind of gossip you go to the Mike Duffy trial to hear come out as evidence?

 Court reporter Nicholas Köhler on the Duffy trial