The RCMP is alleging that Nigel Wright, Stephen Harper’s former chief of staff, breached the Criminal Code for his part in a extensive Conservative operation to contain the Senate expenses scandal.
In court documents released on Wednesday, the Mounties allege that Mr. Wright committed bribery, fraud and breach of trust when he made a secret $90,000 payment to Senator Mike Duffy in a bid to put a lid on the spending scandal. Those documents portray a damage-control effort overseen in minute detail by senior Conservatives, including members of the Prime Minister’s Office.
The revelation that the Mounties are alleging criminal wrongdoing in the top echelons of the federal government reignited the Senate controversy, with fresh questions in the House of Commons about what the Prime Minister knew about the events.
The documents include a Feb. 22 e-mail in which Mr. Harper’s chief of staff, Nigel Wright, said he would consult the Prime Minister as the Conservative Party contemplated helping Conservative Senator Mike Duffy pay back questionable expense claims.
“We are good to go from the PM,” an e-mail from Mr. Wright to colleagues said an hour later.
Under fire in the House, Mr. Harper said other documents in the RCMP file indicate he knew nothing of the Conservative Party’s plan to repay Mr. Duffy’s expenses, or Mr. Wright’s decision to give $90,000 to the PEI senator.
“What the RCMP ha s confirmed in its documents today is that two individuals, Mr. Duffy and Mr. Wright, are under investigation for their actions in this matter, and it has also confirmed that this Prime Minister has been telling exactly the truth,” Mr. Harper said.
Mr. Harper’s director of communications added the Prime Minister “was not aware of any scheme at all, in any way, ever.”
No charges have been laid and none of the allegations have been proven in court. In a statement, Mr. Wright said: “My intention was always to secure repayment of funds owed to taxpayers. I acted within the scope of my duties and remain confident that my actions were lawful.”
As well as e-mails from officials in the Prime Minister’s Office and the Conservative Party, the documents the RCMP released on Wednesday in an application to obtain banking records and Senate e-mails include summaries of interviews with key players at the heart of the controversy.
Some of the e-mails released on Wednesday contradict public statements from several senators about their knowledge of the scheme and the PMO’s involvement. The RCMP is now requesting e-mails from three Conservative senators – Marjory LeBreton, David Tkachuk and Carolyn Stewart-Olsen. Corporal Greg Horton says he believes Ms. Stewart-Olsen’s version of events to police was “incomplete, and not consistent with the facts.”
The documents released on Wednesday offer an unprecedented look at the crisis management in the Prime Minister’s Office as Conservative officials and caucus members tried to contain the damage from revelations about the expense claims of Mr. Duffy and two other Conservative senators, Patrick Brazeau and Pamela Wallin. Claims by Liberal Mac Harb were also questioned. Mr. Harb has since retired, and the other three have been suspended without pay.
A summary of an interview with the chair of the Conservative Fund, Senator Irving Gerstein, indicates the party was initially willing to pay Mr. Duffy’s expenses, despite Mr. Gerstein’s suggestion this month that he rejected such a request from Mr. Wright. Mr. Gerstein told the Mounties one of his concerns was “whether senator Duffy would keep such a payment confidential.”
The RCMP examined 260,000 e-mails of possible relevance, and narrowed its investigation to 2,600 that contained possible evidence, Cpl. Horton said. He said the documents show Mr. Wright and other senior government officials tried to “influence” a Senate probe to limit any damaging findings against Mr. Duffy, who was a prominent figure in Conservative circles and showed a willingness to fight back in public.
The e-mails cover numerous exchanges among PMO and Conservative officials on a variety of topics, including a fight with a Conservative staffer who objected to changes to a final audit report on Mr. Duffy’s expenses. One e-mail indicates that, during the process, Mr. Gerstein called a contact at the audit firm, Deloitte, to see if it would end its audit if Mr. Duffy repaid the money.
The documents indicate the overall goal was to settle the financial matter and ensure that all Conservatives would say the same things to the media on the subject. However, Mr. Wright said in e-mails that he grew “beyond furious” as the backroom dealings dragged on, and he was increasingly worried the scandal would “end up hurting the Prime Minister.”
The Conservative Party refused to pay Mr. Duffy’s bill when the amount tripled from an estimated $30,000. The $90,000 payment from Mr. Wright was made on March 25, and was reported by CTV News on May 15. Mr. Wright left the PMO four days later.
Cpl. Horton said in the application for the warrant that Mr. Wright and Mr. Duffy “breached the standard of responsibility and conduct demanded of them in their positions of public trust.” Cpl. Horton also alleged there was an agreement “to give and accept money in exchange for something to be done or omitted to be done.”
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair insisted that “the whole scheme” took place in Mr. Harper’s office, accusing Mr. Harper of having laid out a version of events “that he knew was not true.”