OTTAWA (Reuters) - The trial of a suspended Canadian senator who was once a political ally of Prime Minister Stephen Harper threatens to damage the chances of the governing Conservatives in next year's general election.
Senator Mike Duffy, a former high-profile television reporter who was a star performer for the right-leaning Conservatives, will go on trial in April on 31 criminal charges, including bribery and breach of trust, lawyers said on Tuesday.
The election is set for Oct. 19, 2015.
The trial, which has been scheduled for 41 days in April, May and June, will take place as the Conservatives ramp up their election preparations.
Polls show that if the vote were held now, the party would most likely lose power to the opposition Liberals, who are led by Justin Trudeau, son of former Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau.
The scandal is one of the most serious to hit the Conservatives, who came to power in early 2006 promising to increase government accountability. Critics say the affair shows the party cannot be trusted.
"It's not exactly the message the government wants to be talking about over the space of a critical run-up to the next election," said Darrell Bricker, chief executive officer of polling firm Ipsos Public Affairs.
"My suspicion is that it will be a problem."
Harper's chief of staff, Nigel Wright, was forced to resign last year after it emerged that he had secretly paid Duffy a check for C$90,000 ($81,800) to cover his expenses. Duffy denies he did anything wrong.
The Senate, the upper house of Canada's parliament, later suspended Duffy and two other Conservative senators for claiming expenses they were not entitled to. Harper himself had named all three to the Senate. Canadian senators are appointed by the governing party.
"As we've said from the start, we trust that the evidence will show Senator Duffy is innocent of these criminal charges," Duffy's lawyer, Donald Bayne, told reporters outside court.
Although Harper insists he never knew of the C$90,000 check until told about it after the fact, critics are not convinced, in particular because he runs a famously hands-on government.
"We still haven't had a very clear answer from the prime minister about how this all went down on his watch without him knowing," said Charlie Angus, ethics spokesman for the official opposition New Democrats.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) examined Wright's role in the affair and decided not to bring charges.
The damage to the Conservatives could increase if Harper and other senior officials are called to testify.
"The RCMP itself has concluded that the prime minister had no knowledge of the issue. As a result it is difficult to imagine the prime minister would have anything to contribute to the trial," said Jason MacDonald, Harper's chief spokesman.
The date of the Oct. 19 vote was set by a fixed election law the Conservatives brought in. MacDonald dismissed the idea that the election date might be brought forward.
Editing by Lisa Von Ahn, Jeffrey Hodgson and Peter Galloway