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OTTAWA—A veteran Parliament Hill assistant to five Conservative senators admitted she too used pre-signed travel expense forms to file claims for two senators other than Mike Duffy but says she never directed anyone else to do so.
She never worked for Duffy but was called at the last minute to contradict testimony by Duffy’s administrative assistant Melanie Mercer. The first time she was interviewed by the RCMP was after Mercer’s testimony last week.
Mercer testified she was shown the practice of having Duffy pre-sign expense forms when she job-shadowed Cicchini or another assistant, Gillian, whose last name Mercer didn’t recall.
Cicchini’s testimony was meant to help the Crown poke holes in Mercer’s account. An aide for 22 years to Ontario Sen. Michael Meighen (since retired) and two years for Manitoba Sen. JoAnne Buth (since resigned), Cicchini worked for two other Speakers of the senate too. She denied she ever officially or unofficially had any role in tutoring or mentoring Mercer or any other administrative assistant. She said in her 25 years at the senate, there was no such formal training.
Cicchini insisted sheepishly she would not have “volunteered” information about getting senators to pre-sign travel claims, which she said were simply an “efficient” way to process “routine” travel claims for a senator’s trips between home and Ottawa. She said she had the senators review the submitted claims afterward, and did not advise senate administrative officials of the practice.
“I didn’t tell senate finance,” she told prosecutor Mark Holmes. “I was never asked, nobody was ever asked. It’s not something I would have volunteered. I was aware this was a little — it’s not right to pre-sign something. It was an agreement between Sen. Meighen and myself. He trusted me and it was a matter of trust.”
Yet under cross-examination, Cicchini agreed with Duffy’s lawyer Don Bayne who suggested that senatorial assistants — including herself — learned how to fill out forms from one another, agreed she did introduce Mercer to other assistants; and agreed she answered questions from Mercer, who was new. She said she did not recall the details of those conversations as they were more than six years ago. She also agreed there were “rumours” that other senators followed the same practice.
Earlier in the day, senate finance clerk Maggie Bourgeau also contradicted Mercer’s evidence that she ever instructed Duffy’s aide how to fill out the senator’s declaration forms “about the primary residence.”
Yet as the Duffy trial enters its eighth week of testimony, the courtroom has taken on a strange air, with the sense of a prosecution that is constantly adjusting mid-course.
Minor witnesses — such as Cicchini — pop up apparently to rebut evidence drawn out by Duffy’s defence lawyer in cross examination — while major witnesses such as Duffy’s friend and major contractor Gerry Donohue or top Senate administrative official Nicole Proulx are delayed, either by the Crown’s strategic choice, or the defence’s insistence. Duffy’s lawyer wants the judge to rule whether a second damning internal Senate audit must be allowed into evidence — over the Senate’s objections — before Proulx returns to complete cross-examination.
The trial appears certain to drag on again this week. On Tuesday the judge will hear legal arguments in a third “voir-dire” (or trial-within-the-trial) over whether a forensic accountant who analyzed Duffy’s spending and banking patterns may be permitted to testify as an expert witness for the Crown.
Already there have been two “voir dires” over the legal admissibility of a series of Senate audits. The judge ruled for the defence that one was admissible, and is weighing the Senate’s objections to the admission of the second.