|Harper’s impeachable misconduct invites allusion to Nixon’s Watergate cover-up
(June 21, 2013)
In the wee hours of June 17, 1972, a security guard at the Watergate Hotel found some door latches taped over to prevent them from locking. He removed the tape but later found it had been replaced. He called Washington D.C. police, who proceeded to catch five “burglars” conducting an illegal surveillance operation inside the office of the Democratic National Committee. As it happened, the name of President Richard Nixon’s White House security consultant E. Howard Hunt was in the address book of two of the burglars.
Ultimately, the burglars along with two White House functionaries were convicted of conspiracy, burglary and violation of federal wiretapping laws. On Aug. 9, 1974, Nixon resigned the presidency to avoid inevitable impeachment but not for the break-in itself. He faced impeachment for his attempt to cover it up.
From this event 41 years ago this month, “Watergate” entered the language as a metonym for “self-destructive illegal act of political hubris.” Now, Canada’s reigning autocrat Stephen Harper has created his own “Watergate” nightmare by trying to cover up a Senate spending scandal.
It all started when the glabrous Sen. Mike Duffy got caught claiming $90,172 in illegitimate living expenses, much of which was incurred during the last election campaign. In the grand fiscal scheme of things the amount was rather minor; not so minor was the image of a senator, a Harper-appointed senator, causing scorn and shame to rain on Harper and his imperious reign.
Harper runs the country like his personal fiefdom, dictating policy like, well, a dictator, which means that anything that might shed a critical light on his hyper-centralized, unconstitutional despotism cannot be tolerated. Therefore, instead of admitting Duffy’s venial impropriety and throwing him under the bus, Harper, like Nixon, thought he could cover it up, such is the hubris that infects those who think themselves invulnerable and above the law.
Harper might not have been aware of Duffy’s illegitimate expense claims, just as there was no conclusive evidence that Nixon ordered the Watergate break-in, which turned out to be largely the doing of White House counsel John Dean. Yet for reasons of ego, paranoia or both, both leaders felt threatened and proceeded to obstruct justice.
What Harper and his minions did to disguise Duffy’s dubious declarations is no less criminal than what Nixon and his staff did to cover up the Watergate break-in. From the following it will be clear that Harper must be charged under Section 119 of the Criminal Code of Canada. If the rule of law is still operable in Canada, Harper, like Nixon, must face impeachment.
CRIMINAL CODE OF CANADA
CORRUPTION AND DISOBEDIENCE
119. (1) Every one is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding fourteen years who
|(a) being the holder of a judicial office, or being a member of Parliament or of the legislature of a province, directly or indirectly, corruptly accepts, obtains, agrees to accept or attempts to obtain, for themselves or another person, any money, valuable consideration, office, place or employment in respect of anything done or omitted or to be done or omitted by them in their official capacity, or
|(b) directly or indirectly, corruptly gives or offers to a person mentioned in paragraph (a), or to anyone for the benefit of that person, any money, valuable consideration, office, place or employment in respect of anything done or omitted or to be done or omitted by that person in their official capacity. (Emphases mine)
Even though impeachment in the U.S and Canada are constitutionally different matters, a comparison between the Watergate cover up and the Duffy scandal is apt and instructive.
As a result of the break-in, the public learned that Nixon secretly taped all conversations in the oval office. Citing executive privilege, Nixon steadfastly refused to turn over any tapes to the Senate Watergate Committee. That privilege ended on July 24, 1974, when the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Nixon had to surrender the tapes. One tape, dated June 23, 1972—a mere six days after the break-in—showed Nixon and his aide H.R. “Bob” Haldeman discussing how to obstruct the FBI investigation into the burglary to prevent the money trail being traced back to the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP).
This admission of obstruction became known as “the smoking gun” that led to one of the three articles of impeachment. It proved that Nixon not only lied when he claimed not to know anything about the break-in, but that he had obstructed justice from the outset. The consistent lying led the clamour for his resignation, and the proof of obstruction forced it.
1) On Feb. 17, 2013, nine days after the Senate initiates an outside audit of three senators’ expenses, Stephen Harper declares in the House of Commons that Sen. Mike Duffy met the residency requirements to be a senator from Prince Edward Island. Five days later, Duffy reports that he and his wife would voluntarily repay living expenses claimed against their primary residence in Ottawa. The repayment makes no sense if the residency claim were valid as Harper claimed.
Clearly Harper misled the House, which is defined as Contempt of Parliament, and for that he can be censured. By convention, any minister found guilty of misleading the House resigns although Harper could continue in office even if censured since censure does not amount to a vote of non-confidence.
2) Not only did Harper mislead Parliament, but his senators obstructed justice and sanitized a critical report. First, the Senate reported on May 7 that Duffy violated “very clear [and] unambiguous” residency rules. The next day, two Harperites on The Senate Committee on Internal Economy forced a rewrite to remove condemnation of Duffy and to claim (absurdly) that the Senate’s long-standing residency rules are “unclear.” One key senator, Carolyn Stewart-Olsen, is a former press secretary to Harper and was his political advisor for more than 10 years, so a conflict-of-interest investigation into her conduct is also in order.
This deliberate excision of key information reminds us somewhat of the infamous missing 18.5 minutes from one of the Nixon tapes. Nixon’s secretary, Rose Mary Woods, claimed that she was stretching to reach something one day and her leg “accidentally” erased part of an incriminating tape. John Dean, remembers that it was the day he told Nixon the burglars wanted hush money:
|“The president said, ‘Well, how much will it cost?’ and I said, ‘It’s gonna cost $1 million.’ And the president said to me, ‘Well, John, I know where we can get that.’ As soon as I left the office, he went in to see Rose Mary and ask her if she had any money. It got picked up on the taping machine.”
Payment of hush money to obstruct justice and protect the government leader, or at least the appearance thereof, can also be seen in the Duffy scandal. On March 26, Deloitte received a letter from Duffy’s lawyer stating that the expenses had been repaid and that Duffy would no longer co-operate with the audit into his finances. He later stated (May 14) that he took out a loan to repay the debt. However, on May 17, Harper’s office admitted that Harper’s chief of staff Nigel Wright cut Duffy a personal cheque for the full amount, calling it a “personal gift”. Harper denies any knowledge of the cheque, even though his office knows of, and confirms, its existence.
The ineptitude is mindboggling:
1) Duffy’s own government, in effect, calls him a liar.
2) No rational explanation exists for Wright’s going out-of-pocket to the tune of $90,000-odd to bail out someone he barely knew. What was his motive? Wright’s actions do make sense if Harper wanted to use him to provide a clandestine, untraceable way to pay off Duffy’s debt as a quid pro quo for Duffy’s refusal to continue co-operating with the audit, which would, among other things, expose Harper’s lie in the House. In fact, this is what happened.
During a withering attack during Question Period on May 28, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair grilled Harper on an e-mail from Duffy stating that after being paid $90,000 Duffy stayed silent on orders of the prime minister’s office. Mulcair asked Harper to tell the House who told Duffy to remain silent. Harper begged ignorance, claiming he wasn’t privy to the e-mail, though this strains credulity to the breaking point.
An embarrassing cheque and sacrificed subordinates also featured in the Watergate scandal. On the June 23 tape, we learn that a $25,000 cashier’s cheque from a Nixon campaign donor wound up in the bank account of Watergate burglar Bernard Barker:
|Haldeman: “They’ve traced it to a name, but they haven’t gotten to the guy yet.”
Nixon: “Who is it? Is it somebody here?”
Haldeman: “Ken Dahlberg.”
Nixon: “Who the hell is Ken Dahlberg?”
Haldeman: “He’s a—he gave $25,000 in Minnesota and the check went directly in to this guy Barker.… It’s directly traceable, and there’s some more through some Texas people in—that went to the Mexican bank which they can also trace through the Mexican bank.”
Nixon then hatched a cover story to obscure the provenance of the cheque.
|Nixon: “…when you open that scab there’s a hell of a lot of things and then ‘we just feel that this would be very detrimental to have this thing go any further, that this involves these Cubans, and Hunt, and a lot of hanky-panky that we have nothing to do with ourselves.’…”
Ten months later, on April 30, 1973, top White House staffers Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, and Attorney General Richard Kleindienst resign over the scandal. Dean is fired. Yet, these removals did not stop the probe into Nixon’s role.
In addition to Nigel Wright, further political corpses can be expected to pile up as the RCMP investigate the matter, an investigation that must lead to Harper. When this happens, Duffy, Stewart-Olsen and other minions will be fired or expected to fall on their swords to shield their boss. In Duffy’s case, this is virtually inevitable, given that his repeated prevarications about the cancellation of his debt make him an irredeemable liability. Such removals, though, would not save Harper.
The original scandal is now secondary to the larger issue of Harper's misleading Parliament and obstructing justice, which must inevitably lead to a criminal investigation.
The Smoking Gun
Just as the June 23, 1972, tape shattered Nixon’s claims of ignorance of the break-in, Nigel Wright’s cheque is the “smoking gun” that should bring down Harper.
• The cheque itself proves that Harper lied to Parliament on Feb. 17.
• The cheque implicates Harper’s office in a cover up.
• The cheque implicates Harper’s office in the obstruction of an outside forensic audit.
• The cheque amounts to a de facto bribe because Duffy’s silence, as revealed by Mulcair, appears to be bought.
On March 21, 1973, Dean told Nixon that the cover up was a cancer close to the presidency that was compounding itself. In the prime minister’s office a similar cancer is compounding itself. Whereas the U.S. Senate went through lengthy hearings to vote to impeach Nixon, the governor-general could impeach Harper in an instant.
Under the Constitution, the governor-general, as head of state, appoints the prime minister to form a government, and as such can just as quickly fire him. Despite the fact that the office is largely ceremonial, it still retains residual constitutional powers inherited from Great Britain that give the governor-general the right to dismiss a sitting prime minister, even if that should trigger an election.
David Johnston, Canada’s current governor-general, has a constitutional and moral duty to impeach Harper and end the cancer of corruption. He must be compelled to do so. The integrity of our system of government depends upon it.
For a select chronology of Stephen Harper’s Watergate, click here.