Mike Duffy’s lawyer used the words of former Harper chief of staff Nigel Wright against him on Thursday, painting a picture in court of a Prime Minister’s Office that browbeat the PEI senator into repaying controversial expenses because it was desperate to avoid a Mulroney era-type scandal.
Mr. Wright cited Scripture to explain why he decided to keep secret the fact that he personally covered Mr. Duffy’s tab, citing a verse from the New Testament about how people who give alms to the needy shouldn’t brag about it.Tweets from https://twitter.com/kingdomofevan/lists/duffy-trial
On the campaign trail, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper stuck to his story about how he knew nothing of the Wright gift to Mr. Duffy until it hit the news – despite an e-mail released in court Thursday in which his former chief of staff tells others in the Prime Minister’s Office that “the PM knows, in broad terms only, that I personally assisted Duffy when I was getting him to agree to repay the expenses.”
On Day 2 of Mr. Wright’s testimony at Mr. Duffy’s fraud trial in Ottawa, defence lawyer Donald Bayne drew upon interviews with the RCMP to try to make the case that his client was railroaded into accepting $90,172.24 from the PMO aide and making redress that he felt was not necessary.
Mr. Wright, presented with transcripts of his conversations with police, acknowledged that he had said Mr. Duffy “probably didn’t owe,” or need to reimburse taxpayers for, controversial expense claims and that the PMO was “basically forcing” repayment.
The wealthy 52-year-old businessman, who has returned from London to testify at the trial, winced at the phrasing, telling the court: “I don’t love the way I described it” to the RCMP.
Mr. Wright later challenged the interpretation of the phrase “basically forcing,” saying that in his mind this was merely an attempt to persuade Mr. Duffy, but that he was free to refuse what was being asked of him.
He said that, given the Senate’s fuzzy expense rules, he felt that Mr. Duffy, a Harper appointee, had an arguable case against repayment, but “I don’t think I ever concluded definitively that he did not legally owe the money back.”
Mr. Bayne then introduced a police interview with Conservative Party lawyer Arthur Hamilton, who recounted conversations he had had with Mr. Wright in which the former Harper aide talked of his determination to avoid a repeat of the political crises that beset former Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney.
“Nigel was certainly – I don’t want to say fixated – but he was cognizant that he wanted to do everything in his power not to allow a repeat of some of the things that in his impression bogged Mulroney down and brought his administration to an unhappy end,” Mr. Bayne said, recounting Mr. Hamilton’s words.
“So in that context he would sometimes talk about, you know, ‘We can’t lose a caucus member. The minute you lose a caucus member, it starts to go downhill.’”
Mr. Wright defended his decision to keep secret the fact that he had repaid Mr. Duffy’s controversial housing and living expense claims out of his own pocket, describing it as a good deed that should not be boasted about.
He cited the New Testament – Matthew, Chapter 6, Verse 3 – by way of explanation. “This is sort of Matthew 6: You should do those things quietly and not let your right hand know what your left is doing,” he told the court.
There are different translations of the Bible, but a generally accepted version of the verse in question discusses how people should not brag of giving alms to the poor. “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,” the New International Version of the Bible reads.
Mr. Duffy has been charged with 31 counts including fraud on the government, breach of trust and bribery; he has pleaded not guilty.
Mr. Wright explained that the PMO felt that taxpayers would not accept a senator balking at repaying what amounted to $90,000 in questionable expense claims, much of which stemmed from Mr. Duffy accepting a housing allowance for living in Ottawa – where he had resided for decades.
“The reason we were taking the course of action is we thought he owed the money on a moral or principled basis,” he said.
Mr. Bayne rejected Mr. Wright’s justifications. “You told [Mr. Hamilton] you didn’t want a Mulroney-type scandal. This was all political damage control. This wasn’t paying the taxpayer back. This wasn’t doing a good deed,” he said.
“I suggest to you, sir, that was the object of all this forcing and browbeating: to inflict on Duffy and the Canadian public a deceptive scenario – that he had repaid, that he had made a mistake, when he told you and his lawyer told you … he doesn’t believe he made a mistake.”
Mr. Bayne cited an e-mail sent by Mr. Wright as the matter unfolded – “The government was going to be happy if people thought Duffy repaid” – as evidence that even his secret munificence was political.
Mr. Wright pushed back, saying his words don’t “have the connotation that you’re suggesting.”
On the campaign trail Thursday, Mr. Harper skirted a question from a reporter asking about the newly revealed e-mail in which Mr. Wright said he had told the Prime Minister “in broad terms” of how he personally assisted Mr. Duffy.
The Conservative Leader 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.
“Mr. Wright has been crystal clear, he did not tell me that,” Mr. Harper said while campaigning in Regina Thursday. “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.”
Mr. Wright, for his part, argued his actions were far more straightforward than Mr. Duffy’s lawyer was suggesting.
“My purpose throughout all of this was to persuade Senator Duffy to repay his expenses,” the former Harper aide said. “Sometimes he agreed and sometimes he didn’t. Eventually he agreed. In the course of agreeing, he said he didn’t have the funds to do it. And I ended up supplying the funds,” he said.
“I was happy to have people believe that [Mr. Duffy] had repaid,” Mr. Wright said. “I don’t think it made it meaningfully different that I contributed.”
With a report from Gloria GallowayReport Typo/Error