Stephen Harper’s central defence in the Nigel Wright affair – that the aide told no one of his secret $90,000 gift to Senator Mike Duffy – is eroding in the face of RCMP evidence that three others in the Prime Minister’s Office knew of the arrangement.
A sworn RCMP affidavit made public this week reveals that the Conservative Party was planning to foot the bill for repaying Mr. Duffy’s improperly claimed expenses before it realized how much it would cost. The RCMP filed the documents on June 24 as part of its investigation into whether the Prince Edward Island senator committed fraud and breach of trust.
RCMP investigators say lawyers for Mr. Wright told three members of the PMO about the payment to Mr. Duffy.
“Mr. Wright recalls that he told the following people that he would personally provide funds to repay Duffy’s … expenses,” the affidavit says.
These PMO staffers include Chris Woodcock, director of issues management – a job that handles hot political files – as well as legal adviser Benjamin Perrin and David van Hemmen, Mr. Wright’s executive assistant. These three ultimately owed their jobs to Mr. Wright, who as chief of staff would have decided who was hired, promoted or fired in such senior PMO positions.
Senator Irving Gerstein, who controls the Conservative Party’s taxpayer-subsidized war chest, also knew of the arrangement, Mr. Wright’s lawyer told the RCMP.
This revelation contradicts Mr. Harper’s statement in the House of Commons that Mr. Wright was the only person who knew about the $90,000 payment to try to quell a controversy over Mr. Duffy’s expense claims. It also fuels questions about how likely it was that the Prime Minister was unaware of such a serious initiative when such knowledge was shared among four of his senior staff.
“It was Mr. Wright who made the decision to take his personal funds and give those to Mr. Duffy,” Mr. Harper said in the Commons on June 5. “Those were his decisions. They were not communicated to me or to members of my office.” On May 28, he told the Commons the gift to Mr. Duffy was “a matter he kept to himself until Wednesday, May 15” – the day the PMO finally acknowledged the $90,000 payment publicly.
Asked to address the contradiction between what Mr. Harper said in Question Period and the RCMP evidence in the court filing, PMO director of communications Andrew MacDougall said: “I will decline comment on Mr. Wright’s recollections.”
Mr. Harper has long contended that he knew nothing of Mr. Wright’s gift and that the former chief of staff acted alone. The PMO said Friday that it believes the RCMP court filings corroborate Mr. Harper’s insistence that he was unaware of the transaction.
In fact, the affidavit states that Mr. Wright told investigators, through his lawyer, that Mr. Harper was not aware of the payment. But Cpl. Greg Horton, who swore the affidavit, is silent on whether he believes the Prime Minister was kept in the dark.
Rob Walsh, retired law clerk of the House of Commons, said Mr. Harper is not justified in pleading that he was out of the loop. “In terms of the Prime Minister, he owes Canadians a greater duty to keep himself informed about what his office is doing and to accept responsibility for what his office is doing and to not protest he knew nothing when it frankly seems implausible or irresponsible for him to have not known this was going on.”
NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus said it’s difficult to accept Mr. Harper’s insistence he was kept in the dark about the Wright payout.
“I think what’s really disturbing is we have the prime minister of this country … misleading Parliament and Canadians day after day about a potential illegal payout from his office,” Mr. Angus said.
The RCMP has been investigating Senator Mike Duffy since March, according to court documents, far longer than was previously known and well before news broke that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s chief of staff secretly gave the senator $90,000.
The Mounties are seeking a copy of the cheque Mr. Duffy ultimately used to reimburse taxpayers for his expense claims, in part to obtain banking information that could be used to request further records. The Senate has previously stated that the cheque was issued from a bank account in Mr. Duffy’s name, and listed a PEI address.
Mr. Duffy has repeatedly declined to speak with reporters about the RCMP investigation and did not respond to requests for comment from The Globe and Mail on Friday.
The court documents reveal for the first time that Mr. Duffy appeared to be worried about losing his seat in the Senate if he stopped claiming that his primary residence was in PEI, the province he was appointed to represent. Lawyers for Mr. Wright told RCMP investigators that Mr. Wright had assured the Senator that would not occur.
The Ontario Court of Justice documents are applications for production orders or search warrants seeking evidence from the Senate about Mr. Duffy’s expense claims. The contents were initially sealed, but The Globe and CTV made an application to the court to have them made public in order to report on their contents.
The court records allege that Mr. Duffy demonstrated a “pattern of filing fraudulent expense claims” and reveal that he is under criminal investigation for accepting the $90,000 gift from Mr. Wright.