OTTAWA — Stephen Harper says only one member of his staff in the Prime Minister’s Office acted irresponsibly or unethically during the Mike Duffy affair.
And the Conservative leader admitted he phoned the one employee he did blame — former chief of staff Nigel Wright — to wish him well last year.
Harper made the comments in a wide-ranging interview with CBC anchor Peter Mansbridge, broadcast Monday night.
Details of the scandal surrounding Sen. Duffy’s expenses, and chief of staff Nigel Wright’s clandestine repayment of $90,000 of them, monopolized the first stretch of the election campaign.
Duffy’s trial is on hiatus until November, but the dramatic testimony of Wright, former PMO lawyer Benjamin Perrin, and former issues manager Chris Woodcock stole the headlines last month.
Emails entered into evidence at Duffy’s fraud, breach of trust, and bribery trial show several of Harper’s staff were involved in coaching Duffy on media lines, managing the actions of a Senate committee, or aware of the negotiations to repay Duffy’s claims.
Mansbridge asked Harper if he at any point went to them and said, “why didn’t you tell me about this?”
Harper responded that some of the facts of the trial were in dispute — most likely referring to the fact that Perrin had testified that Harper’s current chief of staff Ray Novak knew of Wright’s repayment. Novak has said he did not.
Harper repeated his position that Wright bore the sole responsibility for the matter, as the person directly below him in the PMO.
“There’s no person on my staff that I believe deceived me or acted unethically or, or irresponsibly…other than Mr. Wright, yes,” Harper said.
Harper also revealed that he had telephoned Wright to wish him well on taking his latest executive position with private equity firm Onex Corp.’s London office last summer. A year earlier, he said he felt “anger, betrayal, disappointment, deception,” with Wright.
Around the same time in 2014, Wright had been feted at a dinner at the Speaker of the House of Commons residence, attended by other top Conservative figures.
Wright testified that he had been in contact with Novak as recently as a few weeks before his August testimony. Woodcock was seen speaking to a Conservative campaign worker in the corridors of the courthouse.
“Did you get mad at those around you when this happened?” Mansbridge asked Harper.
“I’ve been — I’ve been very upset about it and you know, you ask yourself, what could we do differently in the future,” Harper responded.
“But you know, look, at some point I would say this. I went through a period where I was very angry. But you’ve just gotta let that anger go. You have to move on.”
If Harper was ever angry at others in the office, it was never publicly apparent.
Of the figures who were involved in the Duffy affair, most went on to get other senior positions in the Conservative government. Novak is still Harper’s chief of staff, and a senior campaign director.
During the rare one-on-one interview, the Conservative party leader repeated several messages he has been delivering on the campaign trail over the last several weeks, particularly that his is the only political party that will steer the economy back to prosperity.
Harper also repeated his stance on military involvement fighting ISIL in the Middle East, saying Canada must be “in for the long haul,” and pulling out of the region would add even more displaced persons to the current refugee crisis.
Mansbridge plans to interview the other party leaders in the coming days. The veteran journalist told Harper he plans to ask each politician what makes them, as an individual, a good candidate for prime minister.
Harper’s answer largely stuck to his major campaign points, leadership and the economy, but the notoriously closed-off Conservative leader also touched on what leading Canada has meant to him, personally.
“I love the job. It’s an honour to serve this country,” he said.
“I’m hopeful that we’ll get another mandate. But if we don’t, look, all I say is that it’s been an honour to serve. And I think we’ve done a good job and we can continue doing a good job.”