Stephen Harper’s former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, says the prime minister was not aware that the Conservative Party had initially agreed to foot the bill for Sen. Mike Duffy’s questionable expense claims.
Harper also did not know that Wright ended up personally covering the senator’s expenses when they turned out to be much higher, Wright testified at Duffy’s criminal trial in Ottawa on Wednesday.
Wright revealed he and a number of PMO staffers had been working behind the scenes to repay Duffy's expenses and get him to admit to a "possible error" in his paperwork, without informing Harper of how the money would be repaid.
Wright ultimately agreed to pay $90,000 of his own money to cover Duffy's questionable expenses and legal costs.
Duffy has pleaded not guilty to 31 charges related to his Senate expense claims, including fraud of government, bribery, and breach of trust.
During his testimony on Wednesday, Wright told the court of conversations and email exchanges with Duffy about the residence expense claims.
He also said that he “lived to regret” his “relatively quick” decision to give Duffy the $90,000.
"I couldn’t think of another way of doing it, so I thought I would do it myself and I could do it myself,” Wright said.
He said he viewed it as an “obligation” and as “helping out the system of government.”
Some of the charges against Duffy hinge on whether he improperly interpreted Senate definitions of primary and secondary residences in order to claim tens of thousands of dollars in expenses while living in the Ottawa suburb of Kanata.
In his testimony, Wright recalled a "business conversation" Duffy had with Stephen Harper at a caucus meeting on Feb. 13, 2013, during which he said the senator explained to the PM why he was claiming his P.E.I. residence as his primary home.
Wright testified that he told Harper it is his "common sense understanding" that Duffy "hung his hat in Kanata." Wright also told the court that he advised the prime minister that Duffy should be claiming his Kanata home as his primary residence.
Harper agreed and told Duffy to pay back the money, Wright said.
Harper has publicly stated the same thing on several occasions.
Court documents reveal a subsequent email exchange between Wright, PMO staffers and Duffy's lawyer, in which they attempt to work through a proposal to have Duffy repay the money and admit to making a "possible error" on the Senate expense form. In the email exchange, Duffy's lawyer offers several conditions to her client accepting the proposal. Those conditions included that he be "kept whole" through the repayment process, and that his legal expenses be covered.
During his testimony, Wright defended a statement he made in a Feb. 22, 2013 email, in which he told Duffy's lawyer and several PMO officials that "we are good to go from the PM" on a repayment proposal worked out by the two sides.
"'Good to go' means that the points I wanted to raise with the PM had been raised and that we could proceed with the plan," Wright said in court. When asked if he told Harper about agreeing to repay the money for Duffy, Wright said "No."
Wright told the court he initially thought Duffy's expenses totalled about $32,000, and that the party would cover those costs. However, he later learned Duffy owed nearly $80,000, bringing the total bill up to approximately $90,000, with legal expenses included.
At that point, Wright said the party was unwilling to pay, so he paid it out of his own pocket to keep the process going forward. "I am personally covering Duffy's 90K," Wright wrote in a Mar. 8, 2013 email to PMO staffer Chris Woodcock. "No CPC funds to be used."
Wright told the court on Wednesday that he could afford to pay the $90,000 personally, and he did not want taxpayers to be on the hook for the money.
At a campaign event on Tuesday, Harper said he “told Mr. Duffy I thought he should repay his expenses.”
Harper and the Conservative Party began distancing themselves from Wright and Duffy as soon as news of the cheque became public in 2013. Wright eventually resigned from his post as chief of staff in May of 2013, and now works for Onex Corp, a private equity group.
The RCMP investigated Wright as part of their probe into the Senate expense scandal, but he was never charged.
Harper has not been called to testify in the trial.
Duffy is currently on a leave of absence from the Senate. He was previously suspended for questionable expense claims, along with fellow Harper-appointed senators Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau. All three suspensions were lifted when Parliament was dissolved earlier this month, although Duffy and Brazeau have not had their office resource budgets reinstated.
Emails from Nigel Wright in connection with the Mike Duffy trial.