On March 22, Nigel Wright, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s right-hand man and top economic adviser, should have been celebrating the Conservative government’s biggest accomplishment of the year – the tabling of the federal budget.
But Mr. Wright was involved in another, much messier, money matter. He was locked in last-minute and detailed discussions with Mike Duffy’s lawyer about having the senator repay his expenses after weeks of back-and-forth negotiations.
By that time, Mr. Wright had already made the fateful decision that he would have to foot the bill himself.
In fact, he’d made it weeks earlier, on March 8, when he sent Chris Woodcock, the PMO’s director of issues management, an e-mail that he would come to regret: “For you only: I am personally covering Duffy’s $90K ...”
It was a decision that turned Mr. Wright’s tightly controlled life upside down. The man charged with making Mr. Harper’s political problems disappear had turned a bad political situation into a toxic issue that would ultimately lead to a police investigation. And it forced Mr. Wright, a millionaire and former Bay Street deal-maker, out of his job in the Prime Minister’s Office.
Eighty pages of documents filed in court this week by RCMP Corporal Greg Horton provide an unprecedented look inside the workings of the Prime Minister’s Office, the relationship between the PMO and the Senate, and the thinking of Mr. Wright as he attempted to diffuse the political turmoil. They include portions of hundreds of e-mails – whittled down from hundreds of thousands – and interviews with key players, including Mr. Wright. From that transcript and the e-mails, it is possible to piece together the tale though the eyes of the former chief of staff.
Conversations begin with Duffy
On Feb. 7, Mr. Wright had the first of what would become an ongoing series of conversations with Mr. Duffy. Two days earlier, Mr. Wright had decided that the issue could no longer be ignored after reports emerged that Mr. Duffy had applied for a health card in Prince Edward Island – presumably to reinforce his claim that his primary residence was on the island.
But there was more. The expenses of Mr. Duffy, Liberal Senator Mac Harb and Conservative Senator Patrick Brazeau were now being sent to Deloitte for an audit and, according to Mr. Wright, Mr. Duffy was “upset” during that call. He did not want to be lumped in with the other two senators who were in trouble over their expenses.
Mr. Wright told police he still believed, at this point, that Mr. Duffy had broken no rules. He fired off an internal e-mail saying a senator could primarily reside in Ottawa but, under the rules, could still be a senator from PEI. But “that leaves the very big problem of his having collected $900 per month,” Mr. Wright wrote.
At first, Mr. Duffy seemed eager to make things right. In an e-mail he said: “If there is anything improper about these expense claims, I want to correct it.”
When Mr. Duffy confirmed in a telephone call on Feb. 11 with Mr. Wright that he spends most of his time in Ottawa, Mr. Wright told the senator he “morally” should not be claiming his Ottawa residence as a secondary residence and should pay the money back.
At the end of that conversation, Mr. Wright apparently believed Mr. Duffy was willing to return any money to which he was not entitled. At that point, reporters had pegged it at about $32,000.
Negotiations go awry
Close to the middle of February, Mr. Wright could see things slipping out of his control. Even with the Pope resigning and a new premier taking over in Ontario, news about the Senate wouldn’t die down. Mr. Brazeau was suspended from the Senate after being charged with assault and sexual assault, and Pamela Wallin, also under scrutiny for her expenses, began a spirited defence of her position with an op-ed in The Globe and Mail.
Mr. Wright noticed Mr. Duffy approach Mr. Harper after a caucus meeting. He interjected himself into the conversation to hear Mr. Duffy defending his expense claims to the Prime Minister and saying he should not have to repay them. Mr. Harper disagreed, telling Mr. Duffy that the public would not accept such claims. And, when Mr. Duffy did not challenge the Prime Minister, Mr. Wright thought the matter had been settled. It wasn’t.