OTTAWA — Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, was in the witness box for the fourth day Monday. Under intense cross-examination from Mike Duffy’s lawyer, Donald Bayne, Wright revealed several interesting and significant details.
Duffy, the former broadcaster and Conservative senator from Prince Edward Island, has pleaded not guilty to 31 charges, including multiple counts of fraud and breach of trust, and one count of bribery. Most of the charges are related to claims for secondary housing expenses related to his home in the Ottawa suburb of Kanata. But some of the charges relate to travel and contracts that are unrelated to Wright’s testimony.
Here are eight things we learned on Monday:
1. Ray Novak, Harper’s current chief of staff but previously his principal secretary, is unlikely to testify.
“I don’t expect we are going to see Mr. Novak,” Bayne told the court on Monday.
Bayne has attempted to show that Novak and Wright were in constant communication while a plan was hatched to get Duffy to repay his expenses, accept responsibility for a possible error and, in return, have him excluded from a potentially embarrassing Senate report and external audit with Deloitte – all to avoid embarrassing the government.
Emails show Duffy reached out to Novak while Wright was pressing him to repay his expenses. Novak is also included on an email made public last week in which Wright referred to “my cheque.” That has led to some questioning about what the prime minister’s chief of staff knew about the $90,000 payment and when he knew it.
The Crown has no plans to call Novak. And Bayne seemed to suggest that because he cannot cross-examine Novak, he won’t be calling him either.
Meanwhile, Novak is ducking reporters on the campaign trail.
2. Wright didn’t think it was important to tell the prime minister that the money would come not from Duffy’s pocket but from the Conservative Party of Canada’s funds.
Wright told the RCMP that he told Harper on Feb. 22 that Duffy was going to repay but that he knew by then the Conservative party would be paying Duffy’s expenses.
“That’s not actually true is it? Duffy’s not going to repay,” Bayne said. “Why would you lie to the prime minister if in fact that is all you told him?”
“I don’t think I lied to the prime minister,” Wright responded. “I had two issues that I wanted to discuss with him. I didn’t tell him the source of the fund was the Conservative Fund, I don’t feel it was a lie. I just felt it wasn’t on my list of things I needed to check with him.”
“I honestly didn't think it was that significant a difference,” Wright later added.
3. Wright was concerned that Deloitte might side with Duffy, which meant his living expenses would not be repaid and the scandal would drag on longer — something we’ve already learned the prime minister didn’t want.
Bayne asked Wright why he didn’t just let Duffy try his luck with the Deloitte audit, as he wanted.
“My own view was that if Deloitte were to determine that the expenses were technically okay, and he didn’t have to repay, it didn’t achieve what I wanted to do, which was to get the expenses repaid, because the issue wasn’t whether they were technically okay but whether they were right or wrong,” Wright responded.
Wright said he wanted the issue resolved quickly and he didn’t want Duffy arguing that his true and actual home was on Prince Edward Island. “It wasn’t on a common-sense basis and it would be embarrassing for the government to have one of our caucus members defending his entitlement to expenses on premises that were not going to be persuasive or pass muster with anybody,” he later told the court.
4. Duffy did not explicitly ask Wright for money.
“He did not explicitly ask for money in that conversation, but I think it was implied in the context in that conversation by his saying that he did not have the money. But there was not an explicit request for the money,” Wright told the court.
5. The Prime Minister’s Office used a minister’s regional office to provide staff to help Duffy who would be talking to the media for non-governmental reasons.
Bayne pointed to email in which the PMO mentioned using the MRO to help with Duffy’s media calls when he announced he would repay the funds. What’s an MRO?
“So an office that minister Gail Shea, the regional minister for P.E.I., would have had in P.E.I.,” Wright testified. The minister’s regional office staff would be on hand to manage the media and “end it after a handful of questions,” Bayne asked Wright. “Yes.”
The NDP and Liberals have alleged that the Conservatives have used ministers’ regional offices improperly and for political reasons rather than for government business.
6. Wright wanted the agreement with Duffy kept secret.
Harper’s former chief of staff said Sen. Irwin Gerstein, who managed the fund, had asked that the use of the Conservative Party of Canada funds to repay Duffy’s legal and living expenses be kept secret. But Wright said he decided to ask that the whole agreement be kept secret.
“They wanted to know if Senator Duffy would talk to anybody about it,” Wright said. “No, but you add the ‘entire agreement,’ those are your words, sir?” Bayne said. “That was the stipulation, yes,” Wright agreed.
7. Wright resisted language from Duffy’s lawyer asserting that all of Duffy’s expenses were OK, because he seemed to suggest there may have been problems with his expenses before.
“Because of some stuff that had gone on before, I did not want confirmation that expenses were in order,” Wright testified. At several times, Wright fought back against language that would clear all of Duffy's expenses.
Bayne did not ask him to elaborate.
8. Wright denied asking Conservative senators, including Sen. Irving Gerstein, to tell Deloitte what the conclusion of their independent report should be.
“The reason I wanted to involve Sen. Gerstein is, that I just knew that he – frankly I trusted him to understand, to be clear about it – and I was having trouble with that with others,” Wright told the court.
Bayne put an email to Wright in which he suggested he was calling on Gerstein because the senator had “senior contacts” at Deloitte.
Wright insisted he reached out to Gerstein only to get him to help Deloitte talk to the Senate clerk or to Sen. David Tkachuk, head of the internal affairs committee in the Senate, because he thought the two were not communicating effectively and their messages were getting garbled.
“Yes, I knew he could find the right — I did believe that either Senator Tkachuk and Deloitte or the Senate clerk and Deloitte needed to speak, and I did believe that Sen. Gerstein could help make that happen,” Wright testified.
Bayne, however, shook his head.
“Are you finished making that speech?... If it is just a simple ordinary request to have Gerstein approach Tkachuk, then why did you say you’re having Gerstein work through his senior contacts at Deloitte to achieve an outcome, the one you are pushing for for Deloitte to report publicly?”
“I hadn’t briefed Sen. Gerstein on particular outcomes or anything like that, I just wanted him to fix the broken telephone problem,” Wright responded.
“You definitely wanted him to fix something,” Bayne retorted.
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