Ex-PMO staffer testifies he didn't know Wright repaid Duffy's expenses
Published Monday, August 24, 2015 9:02AM EDT
Last Updated Monday, August 24, 2015 7:35PM EDT
A former senior staffer in the Prime Minister’s Office testified Monday that he didn't realize Nigel Wright had written a personal cheque to Sen. Mike Duffy to cover his Senate expenses, until reporters broke the story several weeks later.
Chris Woodcock is the PMO's former director of issues management and helped PMO staffers and MPs with their messaging to media.
Testifying at Duffy’s criminal trial Monday, Woodcock said he received close to 1,000 emails a day and missed a line in one particular email from Wright that read: “For you only: I am personally covering Duffy's $90K.”
Woodcock said he read only the first paragraph of the email, which was dated March 8, 2013. That paragraph explained that the party would not be repaying Duffy's contested expenses.
He said he thought Wright -- then the prime minister's chief of staff -- meant that the party had not paid back the expenses. Woodcock therefore sent a response suggesting the media line the Conservative Party could use.
Asked about when he found out that it was Wright who made the payment, Woodcock replied it was when the report from CTV News's Robert Fife broke.
"It was either the evening of May the 14th (2013) or the morning of May the 15th, I’m not sure. It was immediately after the CTV story from Bob Fife ran on the evening of the 14th," Woodcock said.
Woodcock added he didn't notice the line in Wright's email about paying the $90,000 "until probably late June 2013" and when he found it, he was "quite surprised."
During cross-examination on Monday, Duffy’s lawyer Donald Bayne grilled Woodcock on his claim that he didn’t read the full email from Wright, his boss at the time.
“Surely you would agree with me that there’s a difference among emails,” Bayne said to Woodcock. “You prioritize when it’s your boss speaking directly to you.”
Woodcock said he read the first paragraph, but the email moved on to “an unrelated piece of information that wasn’t on my radar at the time.”
“It is absolutely common that I would open an email, I would scan that email, I would extract the information that I needed and I would move on,” Woodcock said. “This is a fact of life when you’ve got 700 to 1,000 emails a day.”
Bayne also noted that the email from Wright wasn’t only short, it was “crystal clear.”
But Woodcock said the source of funds for Duffy wasn’t “relevant” to him at that time.
“It’s crystal clear … when you have the benefit of two years to prepare, read over all emails,” Woodcock said.
Bayne also said Woodcock’s testimony was similar to that of Ray Novak, another PMO staffer who replaced Wright as chief of staff after he left. Novak has said through a spokesperson that he did not read an email from Wright informing him that he was sending the $90,000 cheque.
On Monday, Woodcock was also asked if he scripted lines for Duffy to use in his statements to reporters. Woodcock responded: "I did not... it was a collaborative relationship," adding: "It was very much a two-way relationship."
After an auditing firm began reviewing the residency claims of Duffy and two other Conservative senators, Woodcock testified he reached out to the senator in a phone call on Feb. 16, 2013 to offer communications help.
Woodcock testified that he had called Duffy "to discourage him from doing any media" – or, as Wright once said, "from going squirrelly on a bunch of weekend panel shows.”
Crown prosecutor Jason Neubauer asked Woodcock if he pressured Duffy to “accept a certain statement,” to which Woodcock responded: “None whatsoever.”
Asked about the so-called "scenario for repayment” – the plan to repay Duffy's expenses -- Woodcock testified he helped to draft it, collaborating with other members of the PMO.
He said Duffy was part of the planned statement to the media, with the senator himself making suggestions to adjust the phrasing to add reference to "Island sensibilities."
After the CTV News story broke in May 2013, Duffy told the Senate it was the Prime Minister's Office who had negotiated the repayment and written the script for him about what to say about the source of the $90,000 cheque. Duffy said he had "reluctantly agreed to go along with the dirty scheme."
Woodcock left the PMO shortly after the Senate scandal and is now director of corporate relations at Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation.
Repayment as ‘contract’
New emails submitted as evidence in court Monday show that when details about the $90,000 cheque from Wright came out in the media, Duffy reached out to the law firm Nelligan O’Brien Payne for help managing further scrutiny by the Senate ethics officer.
Lawyer Christopher Rootham told Duffy in an email that because lawyer Janice Payne, who also worked at Nelligan O’Brien, helped negotiate the repayment deal, it should be described as a “contract.”
“In my opinion, a good argument could be made that this was not a ‘gift’ at all, but instead income received from a contract (negotiated by Janice),” Rootham wrote. “The payment therefore falls under the annual ‘confidential disclosure statement’ that you must make under … Senate ethics and conflict of interest code.”
This would eventually become an issue for Duffy, who is now being accused by the Crown of being an equal partner in a plan to have expense claims paid back by another individual.
Rootham said at the time that the “more serious risk” is if Duffy faces allegations he breached the Parliament of Canada Act, which prohibits any member of the Senate from receiving money in connection to a “controversy,” and prohibits any person from offering money to a sitting senator.
“If this allegation is made,” Rootham wrote to Duffy, “IF YOU SPEAK AT ALL, you will deny that you received compensation in respect of a controversy before the Senate that any arrangement that was made was bona fide and legal.”
Duffy faces 31 charges in connection with his Senate living, travel, and office expenses, and has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Duffy’s trial is scheduled to run this week and then adjourn until November -- after the Oct. 19 election.
The adjournment is needed because the prosecutors had already scheduled another, separate trial during the last two weeks of October.
With files from The Canadian Press