Whatever Nigel Wright, the Prime Minister’s former chief of staff, was thinking when he wrote a $90,000 cheque to Senator Mike Duffy, he appears not to have wished this transaction to become publicly known. Which is understandable. It is also sufficient reason, in the context of the Senate expenses scandal, for Mary Dawson, the federal Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, to look into this curious payment, now that the RCMP has said that Mr. Wright will not be charged with any crime.
Mr. Wright’s comment, through his lawyer, on the end of this criminal investigation is interesting: “My intention was to secure the repayment of taxpayer funds. I believed that my actions were always in the public interest and lawful. The outcome of the RCMP’s detailed and thorough investigation has now upheld my position.” Note that the RCMP has not gone so far as to conclude that Mr. Wright’s cheque-writing activity was in the public interest; that would not normally be a police force’s business. Note also his use of the past tense – “believed” not “believe” – which may indicate that something that seemed like a good idea at the time has come to be seen by Mr. Wright as anything but, this after the painful experience of being interviewed by the police and having masses of his e-mail correspondence made public.
It is not yet clear – and maybe will never be clear to anybody, even to Mr. Wright – whether this was supposed to be a gift to Senator Duffy, or a loan (forgivable or otherwise). Prime Minister Stephen Harper himself was vague when this matter broke, saying the cheque was an “inappropriate payment.”
If it was a gift, it was hardly an act of friendship, as the demanding Mr. Duffy had become a pain and an embarrassment to the government that appointed him. Still less was the money “a normal expression of courtesy,” in the words of the Senate ethics code.
Ms. Dawson’s job is to administer the conflict of interest rules for public office holders “in order to maintain and enhance the trust and confidence of the Canadian public.” Mr. Wright’s cheque to Senator Duffy was disastrously contrary to any maintaining and enhancing of “trust and confidence.” That undermining of public confidence in public officials, by public officials, applies to the whole mess of the Senate expenses scandal. Its various unpleasant odours continue to waft around Ottawa, and the smell continues to call out for further investigation.