Stephen Harper was questioned Wednesday whether his office interfered in court proceedings after a senior staffer in charge of damage control was spotted speaking to a witness at Sen. Mike Duffy’s trial.
Nick Koolsbergen, Harper’s director of issues management, was seen Tuesday in the hallways of the Ottawa courthouse dressed in a hooded sweatshirt and conversing with the PMO’s former director of issues management Chris Woodcock during breaks in Woodcock’s testimony.
It is not known what Koolsbergen and Woodcock said to each other. Woodcock was the last witness to testify before Duffy’s trial adjourned until Nov. 18.
Harper was asked at a campaign stop Wednesday whether Koolsbergen was told to “instruct” Woodcock.
“Look, these are matters before the court and we don’t interfere in them,” Harper said.
Harper’s spokesperson, Kory Teneycke, insisted that Koolsbergen was at the trial to take notes and inform Harper about what was happening in court.
Teneycke said Koolsbergen and Woodcock made “small talk” but did not discuss the case.
“I guess the appearance of that is not great,” Teneycke added. “But you’re trying to make something that was like an innocent ‘hi how are you?’ into something that it isn’t.”
Criminal defence lawyer Michael Spratt said it is fine for a witness to speak with other people while under cross-examination, but “any discussion about the evidence or the testimony (is) not only problematic, it could be an offence.”
Koolsbergen’s appearance in court is not the first time top Harper aides have spoken with key witnesses during the Duffy trial. Harper’s former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, admitted on the stand that he’d exchanged BlackBerry messages with his successor Ray Novak two weeks before he testified.
Conservative campaign staffer Christopher McFarlane was also spotted at the Duffy trial, assigned to keep tabs on testimony.
NDP’s ethics critic Charlie Angus said Harper needs to explain the “culture” of his office.
“We have a serious criminal trial investigating a possible crime in the prime minister’s office and his issues manager is skulking around the trial in a hoodie and then talking to a witness under oath?” Angus said.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said the PMO “tried to micromanage and meddle in the affairs of the Senate” and “control the news,” so “it shouldn’t be surprising that they’ve continued to try and use the same kind of tactics.”
Duffy is facing 31 charges, including bribery, fraud and breach of trust. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.