Marquee witness Nigel Wright leaves stand, political questions remain

By , on August 20, 2015


PM Stephen Harper's former Chief-of-Staff Nigel Wright (screenshot from WLN News footage)
PM Stephen Harper’s former Chief-of-Staff Nigel Wright (Screengrab from WLN News footage)

OTTAWA – Nigel Wright heads back to his executive life in London after a six-day stint in the witness box at the Mike Duffy trial, leaving in his wake a new set of political questions for his former boss.

And as Stephen Harper’s former chief of staff exits the stage, the prime minister’s former lawyer Benjamin Perrin is set to enter.

Wright’s testimony at the senator’s fraud, breach of trust and bribery trial served to flesh out the story around his secret repayment of Duffy’s $90,000 in contested Senate expenses.

While the RCMP had already established the broad strokes, Wright and the hundreds of emails that were filed as evidence drew a more complete picture of the elaborate, backroom machinations involving Duffy and several figures in the PMO in 2013.

Those included trying to extract information about a confidential outside audit and pressuring senators to soften a parliamentary report on Duffy.

“These were highly exceptional circumstances. Is that fair to say…?” defense lawyer Donald Bayne said in one of his last questions on Wednesday.

“The entire thing, yes,” Wright answered.

Among the most politically incendiary information that emerged in the testimony:

– Harper’s current chief of staff Ray Novak was informed about Wright’s intention to repay the expenses by direct email and Perrin told police he was present when Novak was told about it.

– Wright, who has been treated publicly by Harper as persona non grata, exchanged emails with Novak as recently as two weeks ago and spoke with him by phone in May or June.

– A half-dozen others in the prime minister’s office and the Conservative party were aware of the party’s original intention to repay Duffy’s expenses and some were also aware that Wright ultimately paid. Harper told the Commons in June 2013 that Wright told no one else of his decision.

– Members of the prime minister’s office scripted Duffy behind the scenes, having him tell the public that he would personally foot the bill. This scripting occurred even as the story of Wright’s cheque broke in the media.

– Sen. David Tkachuk, the head of the powerful internal economy committee, was the first to propose that an audit of Duffy’s expenses be shut down if he repaid his expenses, according to Wright.

“I’m quite sure, sir, that you will be glad to hear the words: you are free to go,” Justice Charles Vaillancourt said to Wright on Wednesday afternoon.

The Conservative campaign has been knocked off its main electoral message for the entirety of Wright’s time in the courtroom. Harper has carefully evaded specific questions about the actions of his staff, placing the blame exclusively at the feet of Wright and Duffy.

“The two people who are responsible are Mr. Duffy, who did not repay as I believed he should repay and I think as most Canadians of common sense believe he should repay; and Mr. Wright who allowed him not repay by paying those expenses for him,” Harper told reporters Wednesday.

But if Harper is breathing a sigh of relief that Wright is finished testifying, the trial will hear from more potentially problematic witnesses – including Perrin and possibly Chris Woodcock, Harper’s former head of issues management.

Where the scandal was at first about Wright’s secret repayment, it has now morphed into an issue of honesty and transparency as contradictions pile up.

The central questions that face the Conservatives include:

– Did Novak know about Wright’s repayment, and if he did, why did he not tell the prime minister when it emerged in the media?

– Why did Harper, his spokespeople and his ministers continue to tell the public that Wright acted alone and that no deal with Duffy existed, even after the scandal broke?

– If staff had no hesitation scripting Senate reports, giving orders to senators and trying to glean information from a confidential audit, is there something wrong with the culture inside the PMO?

Separate, but not unrelated to the political implications, are the arguments at play in Duffy’s criminal trial.

Wright was used by the Crown and by Bayne to advance their competing theories about the bribery charge that Duffy faces in relation to the $90,000 cheque.

The Crown has tried to emphasize that Duffy was setting conditions and pressing the prime minister’s office to repay his expenses, in exchange for him making a political headache go away.

At the time, from December to May 2013, the fact Duffy had been claiming living expenses for the home he had long occupied in Ottawa had become an issue for a government committed to propriety.

But Bayne has tried to use Wright’s testimony and PMO emails to paint the opposite picture; that a conspiratorial group of persuasive operators within the PMO and Senate pushed Duffy to admit a mistake where he felt there was none.

Much of Bayne’s cross-examination was also focused at tearing down Wright’s credibility and his position that secretly repaying Duffy’s expenses was based on moral conviction.

A potential plus for Duffy is that Wright testified throughout that he felt Duffy had a valid argument that his expense claims were technically legal, and that the repayment scheme was not unlawful.