OTTAWA — Stephen Harper's top aide and election director Ray Novak boomeranged back into the centre of the Mike Duffy coverup scandal, as the testimony of a former PMO lawyer directly contradicted the Conservative election campaign.
For the past several days, Harper and his team have rejected evidence that suggested current chief of staff Novak was privy to his predecessor Nigel Wright's secret repayment of Sen. Duffy's contested expenses in 2013.
Wright's $90,000 cheque is at the heart of some of the 31 charges that Duffy is now facing.
Wright has also suggested in testimony that Novak did not know about the repayment, prompting Duffy's lawyer Donald Bayne to drop a late afternoon bombshell on the courtroom.
Bayne read from a Feb. 2014 police interview with Benjamin Perrin, a former lawyer in the prime minister's office.
Perrin told the RCMP investigator that he was in a room in March 2013 when Wright told him and Novak that he intended to repay Duffy's Senate expenses. Perrin went on to say that Novak was also in on a conference call with Duffy's former lawyer Janice Payne, when Wright repeated his plan.
"Ray was also there on the call when Nigel Wright said to Janice Payne he would do it, and Ray Novak also received an email, which you have, where Nigel says I'll be providing my cheque,'' Perrin told Sgt. Greg Horton.
"Ray was in that meeting, and Ray heard this, and I remember looking at Ray to see his reaction."
Perrin, now a professor at the University of British Columbia, goes on to call the matter "black and white," and he expresses surprise that Novak had not been listed by RCMP investigators as one of the people who was in the know.
When reporters last week asked Harper about Novak's involvement, he said he rejected the premise of the question.
"The reality is that there are two people who are responsible: his superior, Mr. Wright, and Mr. Duffy. They are being held accountable for their actions,'' Harper said Friday.
Harper's spokesman Kory Teneycke also told reporters that Novak never read emails from Wright about the payment, and wasn't on the conference call at the moment the money was discussed.
"I've known Ray for 20 years. It's unfathomable that Ray would be aware of a payment from Nigel to Mr. Duffy and not tell the prime minister,'' Teneycke said.
The trial is also expected to hear from Payne, who could cast further light on her conference call with Wright, Perrin and Novak.
Wright also revealed Tuesday that he has been in communication with Novak, who has received a Crown subpoena, as recently as two weeks ago by BlackBerry message. He told Bayne he hadn't kept the message.
Bayne has been trying to both tear down Wright's credibility as a Crown witness and to paint a picture of a PMO conspiracy to force Duffy to admit fault on his expenses where he saw none.
Part of the alleged PMO scheme was to have Duffy withdrawn from an independent audit. Bayne explored that chapter for most of the day Tuesday, as the trial heard about how the PMO sought and obtained details on the firm Deloitte's examination of Duffy's expenses - an audit that was supposed to be strictly confidential.
Wright has said that Sen. David Tkachuk, the former head of the powerful Senate internal economy committee, was the first to suggest that if Duffy repaid his expenses, he could be withdrawn from the audit that was underway in Feb. 2013.
Emails filed with the court as evidence show Wright and other senior aides in the PMO discussing how Sen. Irving Gerstein was going to speak to a contact at Deloitte about the audit. That contact was company partner Michael Runia.
The Conservative Party is also a client of Deloitte.
"I have been on the phone constantly with Gerstein who has been trying to arrange the necessary commitments from Deloitte...,'' parliamentary affairs manager Patrick Rogers wrote.
And in another email, Rogers writes, "The Senator will call back once we have Deloitte locked in.''
But Wright has disagreed emphatically with the characterization that he meddled or wanted to meddle in Deloitte's audit of Duffy's expenses.
Wright said he simply wanted the Senate committee to change the terms of the Deloitte audit to remove Duffy, since he says Duffy's repayment of expenses would render the study moot.
He says when he couldn't ascertain whether Tkachuk was making the plan happen, he dispatched Gerstein to approach his Deloitte contacts to see if the firm and Tkachuk were indeed talking.
Bayne was having none of this.
A subsequent PMO email lists information that Gerstein had apparently gleaned from his contact at Deloitte.
"Sir, your career is in business, there are agreements that are negotiated, contracts that are negotiated,'' Bayne put to Wright. "If discussions are strictly confidential, they're not to be leaked. As a lawyer, you know what strictly confidential means. You know what the words mean.''
"I know what their common sense meaning is, yes,'' Wright responded.
After receiving the information about Deloitte through Gerstein, Duffy is counselled to no longer co-operate with the audit.
An auditor from Deloitte who appeared before the internal economy committee in 2013 denied anyone close to the audit divulged any information.
"He wanted to know if Sen. Duffy were to repay (his expenses), how much would it amount to,'' Gary Timm said of Runia.
"I said I couldn't tell him, I couldn't disclose any confidential information to him - that was the gist of the conversation.''
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