Conservative Leader Stephen Harper is dodging an apparent incongruity between his own narrative around the repayment of Senator Mike Duffy's questionable living expenses and an e-mail written by Nigel Wright, Mr. Harper's former chief of staff, who dipped into his own bank account to ensure that the money was refunded.
Mr. Wright was on the stand Thursday for the second day at Mr. Duffy's trial on 31 charges that include bribery, fraud on the government and breach of trust. More than 400 pages of government e-mails pertaining to Mr. Duffy were released publicly this week. In one of them, written May 14, 2013, to a press attaché, Mr. Wright says, "The PM knows, in broad terms only, that I personally assisted Duffy when I was getting him to agree to repay the expenses."
Mr. Harper has always insisted he did not know until May 15, 2013 – the day after that e-mail was written – that anyone but Mr. Duffy had reimbursed the government for the more than $90,000 in expenses. And he stuck to that story Thursday, skirting a question from a reporter who asked him to explain what the "broad terms" of his understanding of the Duffy repayment were prior to that date.
"Mr. Wright has been crystal clear, he did not tell me that," the Conservative Leader said while campaigning in Regina for the October federal election. "He told me that on May 15, when I became aware that, in fact, Mr. Duffy had not paid the expenses as I had requested, as Mr. Duffy had claimed he had done. When I found out that was not true, I made that immediately public."
The e-mails released the protracted attempt by Mr. Wright and other staffers at the Prime Minister's Office to make the spending problems surrounding Mr. Duffy, a Conservative senator appointed by Mr. Harper, go away.
Mr. Wright explained on the stand that Conservatives were sensitive to spending controversies such as those related to expense claims because they felt these were especially injurious to their brand.
The communications plan included having Conservative caucus members back Mr. Duffy, who would explain publicly that his expense claims were "a mistake."
On Feb. 22, 2013, Mr. Wright wrote an e-mail to other staffers, saying, "We are good to go from the PM." He explained on the witness stand Wednesday that he was referring to the communications strategy and indicating that he had raised the points with Mr. harper that needed to be raised.
Given that the plan was for Mr. Duffy to say he would be repaying the expenses when that was not the case, a reporter asked Mr. Harper if his being "good to go" on the communications plan was not a form of public deception.
"When this came to my attention, my concern in this entire matter was that Mr. Duffy was making use of taxpayers' dollars in a way that could not be justified," Mr. Harper replied.
"Whether it was within the rules or not, he was making expense claims that did not represent real expenses and I have said repeatedly that I could not justify paying expense claims for expenses that were not actually incurred," he said. "I was told Mr. Duffy was going to repay those expenses, he would explain his own story on that and that, to my knowledge is exactly what he did until I found out otherwise."