OTTAWA — The definition of “lie” was tossed around during Sen. Mike Duffy’s trial on Monday, all part of a scandal where words are carefully chosen and their meanings parsed.
Nigel Wright, the prime minister’s former chief of staff, was asked to explain to the court what he told his boss about a plan to have Duffy repay his Senate living expenses in 2013.
Duffy has pleaded not guilty to 31 charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery in connection with his Senate claims.
The “scenario” co-ordinated between senior aides in Stephen Harper’s office and Duffy included having the senator publicly admit he made a mistake with his expenses and promise to repay them.
Trouble is, Duffy was never going to repay the money himself and several people around Harper knew it. Initially, in February 2013, the idea was to have the party cover the bill, as well as Duffy’s legal expenses.
Wright says Sen. Irving Gerstein, head of the party’s financial arm, specifically requested that the money part be kept secret.
Wright has said he told Harper shortly afterward that Duffy would repay the expenses.
Why did you lie to the prime minister? Duffy’s lawyer Donald Bayne asked Wright.
“I don’t feel it was a lie, I felt it wasn’t on the list of things I needed to check with him,” Wright responded.
Bayne pressed on. “Duffy was not going to repay. Did you not think there was a difference between Duffy repaying and a secret repayment by Sen. Gerstein and others to have the 1/8 Conservative 3/8 fund repay?”
“I honestly didn’t think it was that significant a difference,” Wright replied. “The significant fact was that the expenses were going to reimbursed and he wouldn’t be claiming them anymore.”
The veracity of Harper’s public statements on the Duffy repayment, as well as those of his spokespeople and cabinet ministers, continue to dog the Conservative leader on the campaign trail.
Harper told the Commons in June 2013, well after Wright’s payment had come to light, that his former chief of staff had told no one in his office about his decision. But Wright told several people in Harper’s office, as well as Gerstein at the party.
A reporter asked Harper again Monday about the fact his staff had apparently lied to him. Harper has yet to directly respond to such questions, saying only that Duffy and Wright are responsible and are being held accountable.
Bayne is continuing on a two-track courtroom strategy that has him simultaneously trying to paint Wright as a calculating backroom operator, and Duffy as someone railroaded by powerful men into actions he didn’t agree with.
The Crown, on the other hand, argued that Duffy made a set of demands to the PMO in exchange for him making a political headache go away.
Three of the 31 charges Duffy faces go to Wright’s secret repayment, including the bribery charge.
Bayne uses the word “capitulation” frequently to describe how Duffy eventually acquiesced to a PMO plan to save the government from embarrassment. Duffy maintained throughout that the Senate’s forms and rules for expense claims were so vague and confusing, that he never actually did anything wrong.
“All of this was basically forced on him, because you didn’t want the party to suffer any political damage to its reputation,” Bayne said to Wright.
“Sen. Duffy might have received a threat, I didn’t make any threats,” said Wright. “The way I see it is that Sen. Duffy agreed to it.”
Duffy didn’t come out and directly say he wanted someone else to pay for his expenses, but Wright says he felt it was implicit in their discussions.
Part of the scenario was to attempt to have Duffy’s expenses pulled from an independent examination by the auditor firm Deloitte — an idea Wright says came from Sen. David Tkachuk.
Bayne focused on emails that showed Duffy resisted admitting fault right up to the time he gave two TV interviews saying he would repay.
“This is nuts and is very hard for me to swallow. I swing between the team player mode and do anything for (the prime minister) and it is time for me to say phack it,” Duffy wrote to Harper’s closest adviser, Ray Novak, on Feb. 22, 2013.
“Let Deloitte decide. If I leave it to them, I have an avenue of appeal to the courts. If I take a dive for my leader when I am innocent, then I am totally at the mercy of the media the opposition etc.”
The court began to hear Monday afternoon about the machinations within the PMO and Conservative Senate leadership to try to stop the Deloitte audit of Duffy’s claims.