In a bid to get access to banking records and Senate e-mails, the RCMP filed an 80-page court document on Wednesday revealing new details about Stephen Harper’s former chief of staff’s $90,000 cheque to Senator Mike Duffy.
Here's a sampling of what the documents have to say about Nigel Wright, senators and PMO staff, and what they may or may not have known about the scheme to pay Mr. Duffy.
Former chief of staff to Prime Minister Harper
His role in the affair
As Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s chief of staff, Nigel Wright was a powerful figure. The wealthy businessman says he didn’t file expenses himself – meals, flights, hotels – because he could afford them. But part of his job, as he explained to police, was to “deal with matters that could cause embarrassment.” And so it fell to him to deal with Mike Duffy, whose trail of expenses had piled into a political problem for the PMO.
The RCMP revealed Wednesday that Mr. Wright is now under criminal investigation, and an 80-page court document details his efforts to make the Duffy problem go away.
It was Mr. Wright who led talks with Mr. Duffy’s lawyer; who at first arranged to pay his bills; who ran details by the Prime Minister; and who eventually wrote a cheque himself, with two conditions – that Mr. Duffy repay the Senate immediately and keep quiet.
“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,” Mr. Wright said through his lawyer Wednesday. But he was aware of the stakes: “I think that this is going to end badly,” he wrote in an e-mail Feb. 6.
When he got mad
On Feb. 11, Mr. Wright met with Mr. Duffy, who agreed to repay expenses “with a couple of conditions.” But the problem was worse than it seemed for Mr. Wright.
At first, it was thought Mr. Duffy owed $32,000 in housing expenses, a figure Mr. Wright thought the Conservative Party would pay. But the sum was actually $90,000, as Mr. Duffy had billed for other things, like meals and other claims while in Ottawa. “I am beyond furious. This will all be repaid,” Mr. Wright then wrote to a PM colleague.
Mr. Wright tried to control the entire saga through the PMO, which led to clashes with government’s Senate leader, Marjory LeBreton, whose staff he criticized for not believing “in our goal of circling the wagons.” Mr. Wright wrote at one point: “We cannot rely on the Senate leader’s office to get this right.”
What he said
The RCMP documents are based largely on e-mails provided by Mr. Wright. They show he led the nitty-gritty effort to avoid “the Chinese water torture of new facts in the public domain, that the PM does not want.”
Mr. Wright once “interjected” in a conversation between Mr. Harper and Mr. Duffy. At other times, Mr. Wright updated Mr. Harper. “I do want to speak to the PM before everything is considered final,” he wrote on Feb. 22, when the party was nearing a deal to pay what it thought was $32,000 on Mr. Duffy’s behalf. An hour later, Mr. Wright wrote: “We are good to go from the PM.”
The costs ballooned, and the party balked. On March 8, Mr. Wright said in an e-mail to a colleague, Chris Woodcock: “For you only: I am personally covering Duffy’s $90k....” The issue flared up in April, when Mr. Duffy suddenly reached out to meet the auditors. “Never heard of this. Is bad,” Mr. Wright said. The next day, a committee told Mr. Duffy the audit was done and he didn’t need to meet with auditors.
Mr. Wright was later asked if he’d co-signed a loan, and what Mr. Harper knew. “The PM knows, in broad terms only, that I personally assisted Duffy when I was getting him to agree to repay the expenses. On the specific matter, I did not co-sign a loan,” Mr. Wright replied. Instead, he’d paid the bill outright.
Two versions of events
In two October speeches to the Senate, Mr. Duffy laid out his version of events. The RCMP were watching. While the Senate is “privileged” – meaning senators aren’t legally liable for what they say inside – Corporal Greg Horton broke down some of Mr. Duffy’s claims in court documents, unproven but made public Wednesday.
Mr. Duffy once declared “that this monstrous fraud was the PMO’s creation from start to finish.” Cpl. Horton saw it differently: “The evidence I have seen shows that the demands made by senator Duffy in February were the start of the ‘monstrous fraud.’”
The senator also said that Conservative Senate Leader Marjory LeBreton had a two-page document outlining residence rules, which he said “does not depend in any way on the number of days spent in one’s home province.” Cpl. Horton said he has seen that two-page report, which “does not address primary and secondary residency, and what expense claims they represent.”
Mr. Duffy said he “immediately voiced my objections to this fake pay-back scheme.” Cpl. Horton said he has “seen no evidence that Senator Duffy ever objected to someone else paying for his expenses.” Mr. Duffy also said the ploy to take out a mortgage was “written by the PMO to deceive Canadians,” while Cpl. Horton says no e-mails he has seen “suggest that this was a plot or script created by the PMO.”
Finally, Mr. Duffy said then chief of staff Nigel Wright “had my expenses checked.” Cpl. Horton said he has seen no evidence of this. Rather, Mr. Wright said in one e-mail that he was “told you have complied with all the applicable rules.”
Mr. Wright’s frustration with Mr. Duffy
From the moment that Mike Duffy first called Mr. Wright to complain about the way his expenses were being treated, the resolution of the matter became a moving target.
Mr. Wright told police that when Mr. Duffy confirmed he spent most of his time in Ottawa, he explained to the senator that it was “morally” wrong to claim expenses intended for senators who live more than 100 kilometres away. And “when the conversation was over,” say the documents, “Mr. Wright was left with the impression that Senator Duffy would repay the money.”
Then came a letter from Janice Payne, Mr. Duffy’s lawyer, with legal reasons as to why Senator Duffy was entitled to the residency allowance. “Mr. Wright felt deflated by this as he thought he and Senator Duffy had reached an agreement that Senator Duffy would pay the money back.”
Over and over again, the documents suggest, Mr. Wright believed the situation had been resolved and Mr. Duffy was prepared to return the money. Over and over again, he was frustrated.
What would he say next?
The Conservatives, who were trying to organize a way out of the Duffy expense debacle, were constantly concerned about what the senator would say next, the documents suggest.
When Mr. Duffy’s lawyer wrote to PMO lawyer Benjamin Perrin to ask for an update on whether her client would be excused from an audit into senators’ expenses, Mr. Wright wrote an e-mail to Mr. Perrin, saying: “Sen. Duffy would make this easier if he did not have outbursts in Senate caucus that make Senators oppose anything that helps him save face for expense claims that they see as inappropriate and as putting their own reputations in harm’s way.”
And in April, as Mr. Wright and other PMO staff and senators were discussing a resolution to the situation, Senator LeBreton, then the leader of the government in the Senate, wrote: “My only concern is Sen. Duffy. Even though he claims he is careful in what he says and does, the evidence is the opposite! We have to be very careful what we say to him.”
Prime Minister of Canada
What he has said about the affair
In May, Stephen Harper said that he had just learned that his chief of staff Nigel Wright had used his own chequebook to pay back the disputed expense claims of Senator Mike Duffy – and that he disagreed with that move.
The Prime Minister acknowledged that he told Mr. Duffy after a caucus meeting in February to repay his disputed expense claims. According to Mr. Wright’s version of events, detailed in the RCMP documents, the Prime Minister told Mr. Duffy “the public would not expect or accept” any claims related to his living expenses at his own home in Ottawa, and they had to be reimbursed.
New court documents raise more questions about what the Prime Minister knew about the affair, including a potential deal in which the Conservative Party would have repaid the expenses on Mr. Duffy’s behalf.
On Feb. 22, Mr. Wright told his colleagues that he needed to discuss with Mr. Harper a five-point deal to settle the controversy. One of the elements of the agreement was to call on the Conservative Party to repay Mr. Duffy’s expenses and legal bills.
“I do want to speak to the PM before everything is considered final,” Mr. Wright wrote in one February e-mail about the deal.
There is no public record of the conversation between Mr. Wright and Mr. Harper that day, nor any evidence that Mr. Wright discussed the role of the Conservative war chest in settling the matter. In an e-mail to colleagues later that day, Mr. Wright said: “We are good to go from the PM,” adding the only remaining condition was ensuring that lawyers for both the PMO and Mr. Duffy were on board.
The plan to use Conservative funds fell through, however, when it became clear that Mr. Duffy had to reimburse $90,000, and not the $30,000 that was initially estimated, according to the RCMP documents. By March 8, Mr. Wright decided to use his own money to try and put an end to the controversy.
When CTV News inquired to the PMO about the payment on May 14, Mr. Wright told his colleagues: “The PM knows, in broad terms only, that I personally assisted Duffy when I was getting him to agree to repay the expenses.”
According to the opposition, Mr. Wright’s e-mails prove that Mr. Harper was aware that other people had agreed to pick up the tab. Speaking in the House, the Prime Minister insisted that he had always thought that Mr. Duffy repaid taxpayers personally.
During Question Period on Wednesday, Mr. Harper relied heavily on the new RCMP documents to reaffirm his position, stating it is there for all to see “in black and white.”
“It is right in the documents about what Mr. Wright told the RCMP. He said he told me that Senator Duffy had agreed to repay the money. He told [them] that he did not inform me of his personal decision to pay that money himself,” Mr. Harper said.
He pointed to the fact that the RCMP has conducted “months of interviews and review of documents” before coming to its assessment. He added that his office has offered full co-operation and provided all relevant documents to the Mounties.
“The investigator says he is not aware of any evidence that the Prime Minister was involved in the repayment or reimbursement of money to Senator Duffy or his lawyer. The RCMP could not be clearer on this,” Mr. Harper said.
The Prime Minister’s Office kept close tabs on the Senate throughout the controversy over Mr. Duffy’s expenses, communicating regularly with Conservative members of the steering committee in charge of the audits and issuing instructions on how to handle the affair, court documents reveal.
Nigel Wright said he told Conservative Senator Irving Gerstein and Chris Woodcock, then director of issues management in the PMO, about his plan to cover Senator Mike Duffy’s expense repayment after he made the decision, according to an account of an RCMP interview with Mr. Wright. The former chief of staff said he informed others in the PMO about the decision because there were reports at the time that Senator Pamela Wallin had also repaid some money and he did not want confusion in the office about Mr. Duffy’s repayment.
During the course of the expense affair, PMO staff worked together to craft media lines for Mr. Duffy and for the Senate committee tasked with examining his expenses and repeatedly attempted to halt or interfere with the external audit of Mr. Duffy’s expenses.
At one point when it looked as though the audit could not be stopped, Patrick Rogers, PMO manager of parliamentary affairs, suggested that Mr. Duffy “continue to not engage” with auditors, knowing that Deloitte would not be able to come to a conclusion one way or the other on his residency.
Another PMO staffer who knew that Mr. Wright had given the senator $90,000 later attempted to limit information provided to the media about Mr. Duffy’s expense repayment. “We will need to confirm the amount, that it was repaid in March, and nothing else,” Mr. Woodcock wrote.
Most of those involved in the negotiations appeared to go along with the plan as it evolved, according to the court documents. But one person pushed back: Christopher Montgomery, a staffer who worked in Senator Marjory LeBreton’s office as director of parliamentary affairs.
“Chris simply does not believe in our goal of circling the wagons,” Mr. Wright wrote in a mid-February e-mail related to Senate residency rules. “Because of this lack of buy in, it was impossible to discuss meaningfully the parliamentary strategy.”
Mr. Montgomery also resisted attempts to interfere with the Deloitte report, the court documents suggest. On May 8, senators were nearing a deal on softening the language in a report on Mr. Duffy’s expenses. Mr. Rogers e-mailed Mr. Wright and another official from a meeting involving several senators and Mr. Montgomery. “This is epic. Montgomery is the Problem,” Mr. Rogers wrote.
RCMP Corporal Greg Horton wrote in court documents that there “appears to have been a moment of impasse” in the Conservative camp when Mr. Montgomery said the senators “were compromising themselves” by agreeing to change the report. “The final result however was a Senate Report which lacked criticism of Senator Duffy, as the PMO wanted,” Cpl. Horton wrote.
His role in the affair
Mr. Gerstein has said little in public about his part in negotiations to pay the disputed expenses claimed by fellow senator Mike Duffy, but documents filed by the RCMP suggest that he played a significant supporting role.
It was Mr. Gerstein who proposed that the repayment of Mr. Duffy’s expenses could come out of the Conservative Fund Canada (CFC), according to the RCMP.
And police say it was he who called an acquaintance at Deloitte to see if Mr. Duffy’s repayment of $90,000 would stop an investigation of Mr. Duffy’s residency declarations, which had become an obstacle to Nigel Wright’s attempts to resolve the situation.
When Mr. Wright made the decision to pay Mr. Duffy’s expenses out of his own account, Mr. Gerstein was one of small group of people Mr. Wright took into his confidence.
Mr. Wright said he never expected the money to be repaid, but “there was a suggestion, possibly by Senator Gerstein, that he file a claim for $60,000 legal fees that he previously incurred as part of his role within the PMO on an unrelated matter, for which he had paid out of his own pocket,” the RCMP says in documents. Mr. Wright rejected that idea.
What he has said previously
Mr. Gerstein told a national Conservative convention in Calgary three weeks ago that he had adamantly refused to dip into revenues from donations to reimburse the PEI senator’s $90,000 in questionable expenses.
“Let me clarify two issues,” Mr. Gerstein told the Conservatives. “First, I made it absolutely clear to Nigel Wright that the CFC would not pay for Senator Mike Duffy’s disputed expenses,” the Ontario senator said. “And it never did.”
How that differs from the RCMP documents
Mr. Gerstein called Mr. Wright some time before Feb. 21 of this year, “and asked if he could assist in any way,” the RCMP says. “The Conservative Fund is used for various things, including sometimes paying for legal fees. There was a suggestion that perhaps the fund could help by paying for Senator Duffy since the claims were in error.”
Mr. Wright called Mr. Gerstein back on Feb. 22 and asked if the fund would pay the $32,000, which was the amount he believed at that time that Mr. Duffy owed, plus interest. “Mr. Gerstein confirmed it would,” the documents say.
But once it was realized that the actual amount that Senator Duffy owed was much more than $32,000, the RCMP says, “Senator Gerstein decided that the Conservative Fund could not pay $90,000, but agreed to reimbursement of [Mr. Duffy’s] legal fees.”