The Prime Minister's Office insisted on getting Senator Mike Duffy to pay back his housing expenses because it feared the steady flow of stories on the controversy was hurting the Conservative Party's brand in the public, an ex-PMO official said.
In his first day of testimony at the Duffy trial, former PMO director of issues management Chris Woodcock laid out his role in a concerted strategy to keep Mr. Duffy out of the media limelight while the plan to reimburse taxpayers for the expenses was devised.
"It was contributing to a broader narrative of stories … which were highly negative and embarrassing to the government," Mr. Woodcock told an Ottawa court on Monday. "At some time over that period, it was determined that the best way forward would be for Senator Duffy to repay the expenses which were in question."
The Crown is arguing that Mr. Duffy was the instigator, or at least an equal partner, in the plan by which his $90,000 in controversial expenses were ultimately covered by Nigel Wright, the wealthy chief of staff in the PMO at the time. Mr. Duffy, who has pleaded not guilty to the charge of bribery related to the payment, is arguing he was coerced into accepting the money to put an end to the political controversy, even though all of his expenses were legitimate.
For the past two weeks, the trial has heard from former PMO officials who have laid out their roles in managing the affair in the first half of 2013, when the issue dominated federal politics and embarrassed the Harper government.
Mr. Woodcock described his normal working day as starting at 4:30 or 5 a.m., when he would scan hundreds of news stories and watch the previous day's newscasts, before monitoring social media for breaking news throughout the day. In addition, he briefed the Prime Minister on issues that could "ruin his day," while co-ordinating the government's response to opposition questions in the House of Commons.
"My job was to spot trouble, try to identify it and come up with a strategy for dealing with it," Mr. Woodcock testified.
He said the Duffy affair landed on his radar in February, 2013, as stories appeared in the media about Mr. Duffy's expenses related to his long-time house in Ottawa.
"Suddenly, we were encountering a bunch of unwelcome stories about members of the government caucus who were claiming expenses that, on the surface, they did not appear to be entitled to," Mr. Woodcock said. "It was viewed as an entitlement issue and viewed as just not consistent with our approach to governing and our approach to expenses."
Mr. Woodcock went on to work with Mr. Duffy to develop lines to provide on a background basis to reporters, but he also discouraged him from doing media interviews that would feed further stories on the matter.
Despite his central role in the crisis-management strategy, Mr. Woodcock said he found out only in May, 2013, that Mr. Wright had paid $90,172.24 to cover the expenses of Mr. Duffy. In particular, Mr. Woodcock said he did not read the second paragraph of an e-mail in March, 2013, in which Mr. Wright said: "For you only: I am personally covering Duffy's $90K."
"I actually didn't see that line until late June, 2013, and I was quite surprised when I saw it," he testified.
Mr. Woodcock said he only saw the first paragraph of the e-mail, which answered his question on the appropriate response to questions about whether the Conservative Party had paid back Mr. Duffy's expenses, and then moved on.
Mr. Woodcock said he continued to deal with the matter as if Mr. Duffy had personally paid his own expenses, pointing to an e-mail exchange in April with Mr. Wright that suggested he thought Mr. Duffy had paid the money.
"After it became public that Nigel had repaid and after I learned, I was somewhat mortified to having sent this e-mail to someone who had in fact paid it himself. I found it kind of embarrassing," Mr. Woodcock said.
The Conservative Party has said that Prime Minister Stephen Harper's current chief of staff, Ray Novak, also did not read a separate e-mail in which Mr. Wright volunteered that he would make the payment to Mr. Duffy.
The matter has dogged Mr. Harper on the election campaign trail, as the Conservative Leader has attributed any responsibility for the payment on Mr. Wright and Mr. Duffy, adding he would not have authorized the deal had he been informed of the matter. Mr. Harper has said that he only learned about the payment in May, 2013, when it was the subject of a story on CTV News.
Mr. Duffy is on trial on 31 charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery.
His lawyer, Donald Bayne, started a tough cross-examination of Mr. Woodcock on Monday afternoon, asking him why he did not feel the need to inform Mr. Harper about the payment from Mr. Wright, or even the Conservative Party's willingness earlier in the controversy to pick up the tab when it was believed to total about $30,000.
"Your claim is just like Ray Novak's: 'Gee, I got the e-mail, it's only to me, but golly, I've never read it,'" Mr. Bayne said.
Mr. Woodcock said the matter of who paid the bill was not a central issue as he tried to manage the matter for the government. Still, he added he would have benefited from knowing the truth.
"Had I seen the line at the time [in the e-mail from Mr. Wright], it would have really helped me do my job for the next couple of months," Mr. Woodcock said.
His cross-examination will resume on Tuesday.