Skip to main content

Nigel Wright, former Chief of Staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrives at his condo building June 17, 2014 in Ottawa.Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Stephen Harper's former chief of staff is finally about to give his side of the story at the trial of Senator Mike Duffy, providing fresh details on the all-out efforts in the Prime Minister's Office to contain the Senate spending scandal that will land as the Conservatives campaign for re-election.

According to a source who has been involved in the matter, the prosecution will use the testimony of Nigel Wright in an attempt to show that a $90,000 payment to reimburse taxpayers for controversial expenses in 2013 was the culmination of a fraud that began shortly after Mr. Duffy was appointed to the Senate in 2008.

The defence, however, has been arguing that Mr. Duffy wasn't in violation of Senate spending rules and didn't launch the controversial payment plan.

While the verdict is months away, testimony from the Prime Minister's former right-hand man will immediately provide the New Democrats and the Liberals with new material for attacks on the Conservative Party.

Questions already began to swirl on the campaign trail Sunday when Mr. Harper was asked by reporters to explain an e-mail wrote during the affair by Mr. Wright to his Conservative colleagues in which Mr. Wright said they were "good to go from the PM" on the Duffy repayment plan.

Mr. Harper told reporters during a campaign stop Sunday morning that that those were not his words. "They are somebody else's," he said. "I have said repeatedly, and I think the facts are clear, I did not know that Mr. Wright had made a payment to Mr. Duffy. As soon as I learned that, I made that public. And Mr. Wright has been clear about that."

Both Mr. Harper and Mr. Wright have said Mr. Harper was not aware that the money came from the former chief of staff.

The Senate has become a headache for Mr. Harper, most recently with the Auditor-General's report in June, which unveiled new cases of misspending in the Red Chamber. Long an advocate of Senate reform, the Conservative Leader is now musing openly about abolishing the institution.

The Senate expenses controversy goes back to revelations in 2012 that some Ottawa-based senators were stating that their primary residence was in another province and claiming living expenses for their homes in the capital. The RCMP has laid fraud charges against Senator Patrick Brazeau and retired senator Mac Harb, and is investigating Senator Pamela Wallin.

Mr. Duffy faces 31 charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery, which were laid in July, 2014. His case also began with the issue of residency, and expanded to other aspects of his Senate budget.

Mr. Harper, who appointed Mr. Duffy, will have to defend his government's handling of the crisis, including allegations of a coverup, as he vies for a fourth mandate. While Mr. Wright eventually gave Mr. Duffy the money to repay the expenses, the Conservative Fund paid part of the senator's legal fees and even contemplated repaying all the disputed expense claims.

The testimony of the former chief of staff begins on Wednesday, and is expected to provide days worth of material to the opposition parties, given that defence lawyer Donald Bayne has shown an appetite for long and gruelling cross-examinations of the prosecution's star witnesses.

A lawyer, Mr. Wright can be expected to be precise in his answers. His testimony could have a huge impact on Mr. Harper's bid for re-election. Although Mr. Wright was a long-time backer of Mr. Harper, some Conservatives feel he was "thrown under the bus" after the details of his deal with Mr. Duffy were revealed in the media.

Mr. Wright will have exclusive insight for the court – and the public – on the inner workings of the Conservative government.

E-mails filed in court by the RCMP have already lifted the veil on the PMO's initial attempts to contain the Senate spending controversy and defend Mr. Duffy. A popular figure in the party, the former television journalist raised money and was a headliner at Conservative events, and used his broadcasting experience to help sell the party's message.

The opposition parties have accused the Conservatives of changing the results of a Senate audit in an attempt to whitewash the controversy over Mr. Duffy's expenses, some of which covered costs that have been linked to partisan duties. The defence filed a motion to obtain Senate documents in court that claimed Mr. Wright and other Conservative officials wanted to keep Mr. Duffy quiet.

The Conservatives wanted to prevent Mr. Duffy "from going squirrely in a bunch of weekend panel shows," Mr. Wright said in an e-mail to colleagues on Feb. 7, 2013, one of the documents filed as part of the motion.

The Globe and Mail has spoken to people on both sides of the Duffy trial, who spoke on condition of anonymity given the legal and political sensitivities, to get a sense of what will happen in coming days.

Sources said the prosecution will attempt to persuade Judge Charles Vaillancourt that Mr. Duffy engaged in a pattern of criminal behaviour culminating with the payment from Mr. Wright that allowed him to pretend he had personally reimbursed taxpayers.

The court has heard testimony that Mr. Duffy claimed expenses for his long-time Ottawa home when the Senate was sitting, travelled to British Columbia at taxpayers' expense for visits that were chiefly to see his children, and used his Senate budget to cover expenses, including a personal trainer, that he was ineligible to claim.

It is believed that Crown prosecutors Mark Holmes and Jason Neubauer will not spend an inordinate amount of time examining Mr. Wright because they want to focus mainly on the $90,000.

Sources say Mr. Bayne has planned days of cross-examination to go well beyond the discussions of the $90,000 to make his case that Mr. Duffy did not break the rules of the Senate with his claims for living allowances. In particular, Mr. Bayne has said in court that he will use e-mails involving Mr. Wright and other Conservative officials.

The defence has argued that requirements for senators in the Constitution forced Mr. Duffy to list his PEI cottage as his primary residence, and that Senate rules were vague and broad, allowing Mr. Duffy to charge taxpayers to fulfill his parliamentary duties.

Regarding the bribery charges, the defence has argued that Mr. Wright initiated the $90,000 payment plan and forced Mr. Duffy to take the money and reimburse taxpayers to put an end to the political controversy.

Mr. Bayne will also raise questions about a seeming incongruity on the charge sheet: While Mr. Duffy is accused of "corruptly" accepting the $90,000 payment, Mr. Wright, who provided the money, is not facing charges.

Sources said the main issue in the RCMP's decision, which was approved by the Crown, was the notion of mens rea, or the criminal state of mind necessary to merit a charge. For the RCMP, there was simply no evidence Mr. Wright acted with criminal intent, the sources said.

An important moment in the investigation came when Mr. Wright sat down with RCMP investigators and explained what happened from his point of view, sources said. Afterward, the RCMP decided not to charge him.

Mr. Duffy did not agree to be interviewed by RCMP investigators, and will lay out his position when he testifies in his own defence.

In his opening arguments for the Crown, Mr. Holmes said Mr. Duffy was an "equal partner in [the $90,000] arrangement, if not the instigator or the principal party involved in those negotiations."

Mr. Bayne replied in court that even though Mr. Wright threatened Mr. Duffy with expulsion from the Conservative caucus to get him to repay the expenses, he also told the Prime Minister he was not convinced Mr. Duffy broke the rules. To make his point, Mr. Bayne quoted from Mr. Wright's statement to the RCMP.

"I was aware of the fact that I was pushing very hard to have a caucus member repay a significant amount of money to which he may have been legally entitled. I needed the Prime Minister to know this," Mr. Wright told the RCMP, according to the statement Mr. Bayne read out in court.

Mr. Bayne added the money was not part of a criminal scheme, at least on his client's part.

"The payment was the culmination of a conspiratorial strategy directed by Nigel Wright, in concert with a small group of his PMO cohorts and underlings and three senators …," Mr. Bayne said. "Seldom has an extorted person been called an equal partner."

The verdict on the 31 charges will come later in the year or early next year.