Opposition parties turned up the heat Sunday on Stephen Harper over the Mike Duffy trial, with Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau issuing an open letter demanding the Conservative Leader take responsibility for a "cover-up" perpetrated by his staff.
E-mail evidence tabled at the trial suggests senior aides in the Prime Minister's Office – including former chief of staff Nigel Wright and his successor Ray Novak – initially planned to have the Conservative Party secretly repay Mr. Duffy's questionable expense claims and to publicly credit the disgraced senator for having done so himself.
Senator Irving Gerstein, party president, initially agreed with the plan but balked when the figure rose to $90,000. Mr. Wright then paid the expenses out of his own pocket but, for months, the PMO told Parliament and the public that Mr. Duffy had repaid the money. Mr. Harper says that when he learned of Mr. Wright's payment, he fired him – though initially he said his chief of staff had resigned.
In a March 23 e-mail obtained by the RCMP, Mr. Wright informed colleagues, including Mr. Novak, that he would be sending a cheque to Mr. Duffy. A Conservative spokesman said Mr. Novak did not read the e-mail – a claim dismissed as not credible by other parties.
"This evidence is raising extremely serious questions about your judgment and your public statements to this point," Mr. Trudeau said in the public letter to Mr. Harper released Sunday. He demanded that the Conservative Leader identify other staff members who knew about the plan, and fire them.
At a campaign stop in Montreal, Mr. Trudeau accused his Conservative rival of dodging questions.
"Mr. Harper continues to ignore the calls for answering questions, for explaining why he keeps these people who have been involved in a cover-up to hide the truth from Canadians, why he continues to keep them around him and indeed running his campaign," Mr. Trudeau said.
As the trial casts a long shadow over the election campaign, Mr. Duffy's lawyer, Donald Bayne, is set to resume his cross-examination of Mr. Wright on Monday. It's uncertain how long Mr. Bayne will keep Mr. Wright on the stand, or whether other PMO staffers – past or present – will be called to testify.
During a stop in Ottawa on Sunday, Mr. Harper said he would not discuss evidence from the trial. But he insisted that he always wanted Mike Duffy to pay back money for questionable expense claims, despite e-mail evidence suggesting staff in his office worked to get the senator off the hook by having the Conservative Party cover the bill.
"What I told Mr. Duffy was that I could not justify his expense claims," Mr. Harper told reporters at a campaign stop in Ottawa. "I could not justify them; I believed he should pay them back; I always believed he should pay them back; I was told that he was paying them back and had paid them back, and that's why I took the action I did when I found out it was not the case."
However, prior to Mr. Wright writing the $90,172.24 cheque, he was negotiating with Mr. Duffy to have the party cover the expenses – originally thought to be just $32,000 – with taxpayer-supported party funds. E-mails submitted in evidence at Mr. Duffy's fraud trial show that, in February of 2013, Mr. Wright and several other aides were working on a plan to have the party secretly cover Mr. Duffy's expense claim. One e-mail from Mr. Wright suggests the party was prepared to cover expenses that Mr. Duffy charged to the Senate while travelling for partisan activities as well as his lawyer fees.
The former broadcaster has been charged with 31 counts including fraud on the government, breach of trust and bribery. He has pleaded not guilty.
While the Liberal Leader demanded Mr. Harper sack those involved in the discussions who remain on the party or government payroll, New Democratic Party Leader Thomas Mulcair said he wasn't interested in going after "subordinates." He said Canadians should hold Mr. Harper ultimately responsible – and vote accordingly on Oct. 19.
"I do think somebody should be fired for the Duffy-Wright affair," Mr. Mulcair said in Montreal, where he also attending the Pride parade, "and it's the person who named Mike Duffy to the Senate, who is the same person who hired that chief of staff, the person who was in charge of the Prime Minister's Office when the $90,000 cheque was given: that's the Prime Minister."