OTTAWA – Stephen Harper’s former chief of staff says he did not tell the prime minister of a plan that would have seen the Conservative party fund foot the bill for Mike Duffy’s dubious expense filings.
But Nigel Wright also opened a window Wednesday on how several staff members inside the Prime Minister’s Office were working behind the scenes to quietly make an ugly controversy for the Conservatives go away.
Wright spent his first morning on the witness stand explaining to Crown prosecutor Jason Neubauer the actions that led to his decision to give Duffy $90,000 in order to repay his disallowed housing and travel claims.
“I told (Harper) that Sen. Duffy was agreeing to repay; I gave him — in very broad terms, not in detail — the media lines,” Wright testified.
“I think what I stressed with the prime minister was that we believed, and the government would be saying, Sen. Duffy had possibly made a mistake in his claims … as opposed to wrongdoing, and that he would be repay them.”
What he didn’t tell him was that there was a plan afoot for the Conservative party to cover the cost of the repayment, which at the time was believed to be $32,000.
Neubauer also pressed for details on an email that Wright sent following discussions with the prime minister that indicated he was “good to go” from Harper.
“What does ‘good to go’ mean in that context?” Neubauer asked.
“‘Good to go’ means that the points I wanted to raise with the PM had been raised and that we could proceed with the plan,” Wright said.
“Did you convey to the prime minister that there was an agreement that the party made the payment at that time?” Neubauer asked.
“No,” Wright replied.
Wright, who ultimately transferred $90,000 to Duffy to facilitate the repayment of funds, was investigated by the RCMP but never charged. The transaction, however, is at the heart of three of the 31 criminal charges that Duffy is now facing.
He has pleaded not guilty to all counts.
Wright also described a February 2013 caucus meeting where Duffy discussed his expense issue directly with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
“At the end of the caucus meeting, I was speaking to some people over on the side and I saw that Sen. Duffy was up at the front, speaking to the prime minister,” Wright told court.
“I decided to interject myself into the conversation, so I walked over there into a conversation that had begun already.”
In order to maintain his Senate eligibility, Duffy had been claiming his cottage in Prince Edward Island — the province he represents — as his principal residence.
He was claiming his home in Kanata, a suburb west of Ottawa, as a secondary residence, and collecting a housing allowance as a result.
Wright said he “essentially waited for Sen. Duffy to complete his case.”
“It was sort of an awkward, odd situation but I decided to … litigate this in front of the prime minister,” Wright said.
“So, I gave my view, which was that on a common-sense understanding, where Sen. Duffy really hung his hat at night was in Kanata.”
Wright said the prime minister agreed with his assessment of the issue.
“I think the prime minister listened to both sides,” Wright said. “His view was that Sen. Duffy should not be claiming his expenses, he should repay.”
During a campaign event Wednesday in Vancouver, Prime Minister Stephen Harper backed up his former chief of staff’s version of events as he described the February 2013 encounter.
“Mr. Duffy came to me, and I said to him that his expenses, in my judgment, could not be justified,” Harper said.
“You cannot justify claiming expenses you did not actually incur, regardless of what the rules were. That just can’t be justified. I felt he should pay them back.”
Harper said it was always his understanding that Duffy would repay the expenses himself.
“That’s what we were told was going to happen,” he said. When I found out that is not what happened, that in fact they’d been repaid by somebody else, we made that information public and I took the appropriate action.”
During his testimony, Wright also described what ensued later that month.
On Feb. 20, 2013, Wright said, Conservative Sen. David Tkachuk called to outline a proposal he had for “dealing with the issue.”
Tkachuk proposed having Duffy write to the Senate steering committee, admitting to a mistake in claiming his expenses and asking how much would be required for repayment, Wright testified.
The committee would then withdraw Duffy’s position from an audit review conducted by the firm Deloitte, he continued.
“Sen. Tkachuk told me that Sen. Stewart Olsen agreed with this approach and he cited it as being in conformity with what he called the Judy Sgro precedent,” Wright told court.
Sgro, a Liberal MP, incurred thousands of dollars in expense claims after she purchased a downtown Ottawa condominium, sold it to her children, and continued to seek reimbursement for her rent payments.
The issue was dealt with by the board of internal economy, an all-party House of Commons committee that meets behind closed doors and releases few details about MP expense issues once they’ve been addressed.
The court also saw emails on Wednesday in which staff inside the PMO discussed media talking points for dealing with the Duffy expense issue. One of the recipients, Stephen Lecce, has continued to act as a spokesman for Harper.
Wright, who faced a crush of cameras as he arrived at the courthouse in Ottawa in a slim dark suit and a striped tie, has lived his life away from the public eye since he left his job as Harper’s right-hand man.
Sources close to him have said he “just wants to get back to his life” and put the controversy behind him.
The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the matter, say he simply wants to provide as much information as he can.
Duffy’s lawyer, Donald Bayne, said his team will have to “find out in the courtroom” how Wright’s testimony will influence the course of Duffy’s trial.
“We have lots of questions,” Bayne said.
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