OTTAWA — What happens when Stephen Harper’s former political firefighter goes head to head with a man who’s trying to take a flamethrower to the Prime Minister’s Office?
At Sen. Mike Duffy’s fraud, breach of trust and bribery trial, the answer was a shower of sparks Monday in what was perhaps the most hostile confrontation between lawyer and witness of the entire courtroom saga to date.
It all came down to the question of who among Harper’s staff knew about the $90,000 secret repayment of Duffy’s expenses.
The firefighter was Chris Woodcock, the 33-year-old former director of issues management inside the PMO. His role inside the Harper team was to identify potential headaches for the PM in the media, and figure out how to extinguish them.
That job, he said, involved getting up at 4:30 a.m., and reading 700-1,000 emails a day, trying to play whack-a-mole on negative stories in the papers and the newscasts.
As it turns out, Woodcock became embroiled in a scandal that would give Harper perhaps the biggest migraine of his government — the Duffy expenses imbroglio.
He was among the staff members who appear in dozens and dozens of emails about striking a deal with Duffy to get him to repay his contested living expenses — negotiations that ultimately led to Harper’s former chief of staff Nigel Wright secretly paying $90,000 out of his own pocket.
Woodcock said his main contact with Duffy was in the drafting of media releases and public statements — initially “collegial, co-operative” talks, he said. This evidence suited the Crown, which has been trying to establish that Duffy was either the instigator or an equal partner in the repayment scheme.
Woodcock also told the Crown that he wasn’t aware that Wright had repaid the $90,000 until it came out in the media, despite receiving an email where Wright tells him directly he’s going do to it.
“For you only: I am personally covering Duffy’s $90K,” Wright wrote at the end of a message in March 2013.
“I didn’t see it at the time. I actually didn’t see that line until probably about late June 2013, and I was actually quite surprised when I saw it,” Woodcock explained.
Duffy’s lawyer Donald Bayne began a cross-examination with a withering attack on that element of Woodcock’s testimony. The defence has been striving to undermine the credibility of certain Crown witnesses, including Wright.
Harper’s current chief of staff Ray Novak has also denied through a spokesperson that he read an email from Wright explicitly telling him about the repayment. Harper has defended Novak and others, pinning the blame on Wright as the “boss.”
“Your claim is just like Ray Novak’s, ‘Gee, I got the email, it’s only to me, but golly I never read it.’ That’s your claim,” Bayne put to Woodcock.
“That’s the truth, sir,” Woodcock responded.
“That’s what you keep saying,” Bayne said.
The lawyer went on and the back and forth became more strained.
“You have taken the position — and still cling to it — that you read so many emails a day and you just missed this…”
Woodcock responded: “I won’t pretend that you can comprehend what a day-to-day work life is like when you receive 50 emails in a particular meeting.”
“No, I’m sure I can’t comprehend that,” Bayne said, the tone getting tenser.
“I’m sure you can’t either, but it’s absolutely common that I would open an email, I would scan the email, extract the information from it and then I would move on. It’s a fact of life when you receive 700-1,000 emails,” Woodcock bristled.
“You understand here that the judge here has a function, and he judges the credulity of evidence being given to him? He doesn’t just take it because somebody says something happened,” Bayne told him.
“Absolutely,” said Woodcock.
The former staffer conceded that had also been copied on earlier discussions about the Conservative party secretly repaying Duffy’s expenses, but he didn’t assign a great amount of importance to the fact.
“You’re adopting the position that this is written in hieroglyphics, sir,” said Bayne.
“This is written in English and you read English, sir?”
“Sir, frankly, you don’t need to insult me,” said Woodcock, hackles raised.
“What I’m saying is that it’s not that I didn’t understand the words on the page, it’s that it they weren’t important or immediately relevant to what I had to take care of that day.”
While the Bayne-Woodcock exchange provided the drama of the day, the Crown introduced evidence that potentially bolsters their case.
Emails showed that a former lawyer for Mike Duffy advised him to defend the secret repayment of his contested expenses as a “contract,” in the days immediately following details of the secret cheque breaking in the media.
Lawyer Christopher Rootham told him that because firm colleague Janice Payne had helped to strike a repayment deal with Wright, that would be a better way to frame it than calling it a gift.
“In my opinion, a good argument could be made that this was not a ‘gift’ at all, but instead income received from a contract (negotiated by Janice),” he wrote. “The payment therefore falls under the annual ‘confidential disclosure statement’ that you must make under… 1/8the Senate ethics and conflict of interest 3/8 code.”
Duffy sent a letter to Senate ethics officer Lyse Ricard, repeating the notion of a contract with Wright and asking her to review the matter.
This characterization of the payment as a contract is potentially problematic for Duffy now, as the Crown tries to paint him as the instigator or equal partner in a scheme to have the $90,000 in dubious expense claims paid back from someone else’s pocket.
Rootham goes on to tell Duffy that the “more serious risk” is if someone alleges he breached the Parliament of Canada Act — something that some experts did bring up at the time, but which the RCMP never delved charged him with.
The Act prohibits any member of the Senate from receiving money in relation to any “controversy,” or any person from offering the money to a senator.