On a typical work day in July of 2005, Daniel Côté went to his office on Parliament Hill and sorted the mail for his boss, Liberal Senator Raymond Lavigne.
Then Mr. Côté went to work on what he described in court Wednesday as the "Wakefield File" - cutting down trees in Wakefield, Que., where Mr. Lavigne was planning to build a house.
Mr. Côté, 38, testified that he was paid $55,000 a year at the time, and that he was on the Senate payroll as he worked in Wakefield, half an hour north of Ottawa in the Gatineau Hills.
"For me, it was part of my work for the senator," he said.
However, Mr. Côté's activities attracted the attention of a neighbour, who denounced the tree-cutting and started raising questions as to why a staffer was working on the senator's private property.
Testifying at Mr. Lavigne's trial on charges of fraud and obstruction of justice, Mr. Côté said he decided at the time to provide misleading information on his activities in a news release, in which he stated he was doing unpaid work during his days off.
Mr. Côté said he cooked up the "scheme" with Mr. Lavigne, explaining his goal was to "deflect the blame away from the senator's shoulders." "I would have jumped in front of a car for him," Mr. Côté said.
But when a Senate committee starting investigating the controversy in the fall of 2005, Mr. Côté said, he came to the conclusion that he could not cover up what happened. He had spent weeks on the "Wakefield File," not only preparing the land, but also working to get approvals to build the house next to the Gatineau River, in a potential flood zone.
"It would have been too complicated to continue to lie," he said.
Mr. Côté had started working for Mr. Lavigne in 2004. He said that in January of 2005, he and his girlfriend travelled to the Dominican Republic with Mr. Lavigne's family. He said the two weeks in Punta Cana did not come out of his vacation days, given he was invited to be there for the senator, "in case anything happened." Asked by the Crown prosecutor what he did in Punta Cana, Mr. Côté replied: "Nothing."
The first witness at Mr. Lavigne's trial was another former employee in the senator's office, Michel Gendron.
He testified that Mr. Lavigne often received the travel allowance for Mr. Gendron's car trips between Ottawa and Montreal, worth about $150 each, with Mr. Gendron getting only $50 in cash back from the senator.
Mr. Lavigne is on a leave of absence from the Senate and continues to receive his salary. His trial continues today with Mr. Côté's cross-examination.