“Let this small group be under no illusion,” Nigel Wright wrote in an e-mail to a colleague in the Prime Minister’s Office. “I think that this is going to end badly.”
How badly Mr. Wright, who was then chief of staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, could not predict, because the PMO was still in the early stages of what the opposition calls a “cover-up” for Senator Mike Duffy – which went horribly wrong for the senator, for Mr. Wright, for the PMO and, politically, for Mr. Harper.
Mr. Wright’s “end badly” e-mail was sent the day he took charge of the file. By the time Mr. Duffy was suspended from the Senate, Mr. Wright had ceased being chief of staff. For the longest time, Mr. Harper said Mr. Wright had left voluntarily. Then, the Prime Minister changed his tune, saying he had fired Mr. Wright.
Now, Mr. Duffy and Mr. Wright are being investigated by the RCMP for breach of trust, fraud and bribery. And the Prime Minister is left to insist – in the face of public-opinion polls showing that a majority of Canadians do not believe him – that he knew nothing about plans by the Conservative Party or Mr. Wright to pay what Mr. Duffy owed, even though various plans were swirling all around him.
Mr. Harper’s staff, right up to Mr. Wright and Marjory LeBreton, who was Conservative leader in the Senate, worked furiously to concoct arguments, cover up information, negotiate with Mr. Duffy and agree to “media lines.” They brought the party’s chief fundraiser, Irving Gerstein, into the loop. They also succeeded in getting a Senate audit report altered so it didn’t look so damaging to Mr. Duffy – against the opposition of Chris Montgomery, a LeBreton staffer who is the only character in this little drama who emerges with honour intact, even enhanced.
In his arguments to the Senate before his suspension, Mr. Duffy insisted that the PMO engaged in a “monstrous fraud” to get him to state untruths and spin a story of what happened at variance with reality. RCMP documents suggest, however, that it was Mr. Duffy who made initial demands for PMO help so that his own conduct in claiming expenses would be either whitewashed or not made public.
Nothing in the documents explains how it was that when Mr. Duffy was found to owe $90,000, he apparently couldn’t find the money himself. He had been a successful television personality, made lots of money giving speeches, was married to a nurse and had a senator’s salary.
Yet he couldn’t find $90,000 or borrow it from a bank against his salary, at this stage in life? Something had obviously gone seriously wrong with his personal finances, because he should never have been in that position, given his previous income streams.
Perhaps this is what led Mr. Duffy to claim residency in Prince Edward Island, with attendant expenses, when he had actually lived mostly in Ottawa for a long time. Once this discrepancy began to be revealed, the upper reaches of the PMO went into damage-control mode.
They were dealing with someone who, in the words of the RCMP documents, believed he was “entitled to his entitlements” and therefore would prove difficult to manage or shut up.
Throughout the piece, the damage-control artists thought they had a deal with Mr. Duffy, only to find that the deal didn’t exist or had gone off the rails. So they altered a Senate report, tried to figure out how the party could pay at least some of what Mr. Duffy owed, got in touch with the Deloitte auditing firm to see how the firm was proceeding with the audit into Mr. Duffy. In the end, it was decided by Mr. Wright to pay Mr. Duffy $90,000 to settle the issue and bury it from public scrutiny. And all this transpired, according to Mr. Harper, without him knowing anything except that Mr. Duffy would be paying back the money himself.
Mr. Wright’s e-mails, however, suggest that the Prime Minister knew “in broad terms” that his chief-of-staff had “personally assisted” Mr. Duffy in settling his expenses. When one of the possible deals with Mr. Duffy appeared in sight, Mr. Wright sent an e-mail that he had to “speak to the PM.” He did, then sent another e-mail saying, “We are good to go from the PM.”