The judge who cleared Sen. Mike Duffy of all 31 charges, including fraud and bribery, slammed the actions of senior staff in Stephen Harper’s office as “unacceptable” and “shocking” in his 308-page ruling Thursday.

“If anyone was under the impression that this organization was a benign group of bureaucrats taking care of the day-to-day tasks associated with the Prime Minister, they would be mistaken,” Ontario Court Justice Charles Vaillancourt wrote in his scathing takedown of the previous Prime Minister’s Office.

Vaillancourt said the “entire scenario” that involved Harper’s then-chief of staff Nigel Wright giving Duffy a $90,000 personal cheque to cover the senator’s expenses “was not to benefit Duffy, it was to benefit the government and the PMO.” He called the plot “unacceptable in a democratic society.”

“This was damage control at its finest,” the judge said as he dismissed all charges against Duffy, which ranged from filing false expenses and residency claims to defrauding the government.

Duffy did not speak to reporters after the judgment was delivered, but during breaks in court throughout the day, he appeared relaxed and shook hands with supporters. Now that he has been acquitted, Duffy will once again have access to his Senate office and all the resources of the upper chamber.

Vaillancourt said he accepted the defence’s argument that the senator was a pawn in the PMO’s strategy to manage the fallout of media reports about the validity of Duffy’s residency and expense claims.

The judge said the PMO’s goal was to “calm that storm” and the PMO staffers who testified at Duffy’s trial struck him as “highly intelligent and hardworking individuals who executed their mandates with ruthless efficiency.”

Vaillancourt said the PMO emails entered as evidence, including correspondence between Wright, senior PMO staffers and Conservative senators in leadership positions, led him to ask himself, “Was Nigel Wright actually ordering senior members of the Senate around as if they were mere pawns on a chessboard?... Were those same senior members of the Senate robotically marching forth to recite their provided scripted lines?... Does the reading of these emails give the impression that Senator Duffy was going to do as he was told or face the consequences?

“The answers to the aforementioned questions are: YES; YES; YES; YES; YES; and YES!!!!!” Vaillancourt wrote in his judgment.

“The political, covert, relentless, unfolding of events is mindboggling and shocking,” he wrote. “The precision and planning of the exercise would make any military commander proud.”

Duffy was “resisting and kicking and screaming every step of the way,” he added. “He begged not to go through with the plan.”

Vaillancourt also called Duffy a credible witness and disagreed with the Crown's allegation that the senator misrepresented the location of his primary residence in Prince Edward Island.

The judge said that Duffy sought out experts’ advice on the issue of primary residence, including from Stephen Harper. "This was not some minor bureaucratic official speaking but the Prime Minister of Canada," he wrote.

Vaillancourt said there wasn’t any “sinister motive” on Duffy’s part and noted that there appears to be no definition of principal residence or related criteria in the Senate policy.

On charges related to what the Crown alleged was a “shopping trip” to Peterborough, Ont., to pick up a puppy, the judge seemed to mock the prosecution’s arguments and said “the evidence didn’t support that conclusion.”

Vaillancourt said that the trip was within the rules, because Duffy met with MP Dean Del Mastro to discuss arts funding.

Vaillancourt also dismissed all charges related to approximately $65,000 in contracts Duffy arranged with companies owned by his friend Gerald Donohue to pay for various services to other individuals, including a personal trainer and makeup artist.

"I was not presented with evidence suggesting expensive wining and dining, lavish living or pricey gambling junkets, or secret financial hideaways,” the judge said. “Now, fraud and breach of trust can occur outside the aforementioned examples; however, the thrust of all of Sen. Duffy's perceived misadventures was focused on Senate business."

‘Resounding acquittal’

Speaking to reporters outside court, Duffy’s lawyer Donald Bayne said that in his 44 years on the job, he has never been “witness to such a resounding acquittal.”

“You heard the words he used. This is an experienced, senior, highly-respected judicial officer,” Bayne said of Vaillancourt.

Bayne also said that Duffy has likely suffered “more public humiliation than any Canadian in history.”

He said his client did not get a due process from “most -- not all” of his Senate colleagues and Tory Senate leadership, who expelled him from the red chamber before he was charged.

“The importance of what the judge did and said here today shows, we can’t rush to judgement,” Bayne said. “Political figures, public figures, are also entitled to due process.”

Bayne also said the ruling makes plain that the Senate needs clearer rules on what Senators “can and can’t do in the public interest.”

“I’m sure all of you think that some of the things that senators are allowed to travel across the country for at considerable expense -- business class -- may or may not pass a value for money test,” he said.

“There has to be that kind of assessment on Parliament Hill on expenditure of public money,” he added. “Those rules did not exist in Mike Duffy’s day.

What’s next for the Senate?

Marjory LeBreton, a retired Conservative senator and former government leader in the Senate, told CTV’s Power Play on Thursday that she “desperately” tried to keep the controversy surrounding Duffy’s expenses out of the PMO because it was “a Senate administrative issue.”

She said there was a lot of “misinformation” spread around before and during Duffy’s trial, but the Senate has since tightened its spending rules and will be a “better place” moving forward.

LeBreton said she wishes Duffy well as he returns to the Senate. Asked what the impact of his return will be, she replied: “I don’t know. I’m…a retired senator and I must say I’m very glad to be out of the place.”

Senator David Smith, a Liberal, said it was “good all this stuff is behind us, and I think you will see people in both houses be very, very careful about expenditures.”

But the Senate scandal isn’t over entirely. The RCMP’s investigation into Pamela Wallin’s travel expenses, which she has partially paid back, continues nearly three years after it began.

“To have that hanging over a person’s credibility, reputation, career, family,” said Conservative Sen. John Wallace. “I would never want that myself, I hope.”

With files from field producer Philip Ling and The Canadian Press

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