OTTAWA – Stephen Harper did not know Mike Duffy wasn’t repaying his questionable expenses with his own money, said Nigel Wright, the trusted chief-of-staff who ended up repaying the $90,000 in dubious claims.
Wright took the stand in an Ottawa courtroom on Wednesday to begin offering his version of his involvement in the Duffy scandal.
His testimony so far supports Harper’s assertion he knew nothing about any plans to have anyone but Duffy repay the housing and living expenses at the centre of the Senate expense scandal.
LIVE BLOG: Mike Duffy trial resumes, follow our live blog from the courtroom
Wright’s name has become inextricably linked with Duffy’s case since it was revealed that, while serving as the prime minister’s top staffer, Wright cut a personal cheque to cover some of the Duffy’s questionable expense claims.
Previously disclosed RCMP documents showed Wright had told his staff the prime minister was “good to go” on a repayment scheme that included no admission of guilt from Duffy — a statement that had many critics alleging the prime minister must have known details of Duffy’s repayment plan.
At the time, the plan was to have the Conservative party foot a roughly $32,000 bill.
Though some in Harper’s inner circle, including Wright, knew the payment would come from a place other than Duffy’s bank account, that detail was not communicated to the prime minister, Wright testified.
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“I walked down the hall to [the prime minister’s] office,” Wright testified. “I said Sen. Duffy was agreeing to repay.”
Wright offered the prime minister the broad strokes of the media strategy — the government saying they believed Duffy had not made any intentional errors in his claims — and raised one concern he had.
The concern was that having Duffy repay expenses he didn’t believe he owed would set a precedent in which the government “would conceivably be pushing” other caucus members to make payments they didn’t think they owed.
“And the prime minister basically approved what we’d be doing, both the approach we were taking with the media and … to accept the risks the caucus management risks I foresaw.”
There was no mention of the funds coming from the party coffers, Wright explained, because the fund had previously been used to help caucus members with legal bills and he’d never bothered the prime minister with such details.
Following the conversation, Wright wrote to his staff, “We are good to go from the PM.”
Wright, who now lives in London, arrived at the courthouse in a cab before launching into what’s expected to be the most high-profile testimony in the trial of Duffy, the embattled senator and former broadcaster.
For the first few hours on the stand, Wright walked the courtroom through a timeline of events beginning in December 2012, with the first media reports questioning Duffy’s practice of claiming expenses for living at an Ottawa-area home he’d lived in long before being named to the Senate.
Duffy’s stated rationale for doing so was that he was a senator from PEI, owned a home there and, in his understanding, spent an adequate amount of time there to consider his cottage his primary residence – therefore opening the door to claiming housing and living expenses while spending time at his Ottawa home.
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It wasn’t until February 2013, however, when Wright said he first sensed any urgency with the situation; a media report of Duffy’s recent application for a PEI health card indicated to Wright that the senator was “less than comfortable” with his residence status, he told the court.
“Whenever a controversy with a caucus member arises, we [in the Prime Minister’s Office] have to understand as best we can what the issues are” and how they can make it go away, he said Wednesday morning, explaining why he decided to become involved in the issue.
Throughout February 2013, Wright said, he had several face-to-face conversations and email exchanges with Duffy wherein the then-chief of staff told the senator that, “from a common sense perspective,” Duffy had no business claiming his primary residence was in PEI and should therefore repay the claims in question. At the time, the price tag was pegged at $32,000.
“I thought this was an outrage on the taxpayers.”
For a short while, Wright said, Duffy seemed amenable to repaying the amount under the conditions his status as a senator not be called to question and that it was made clear to the public the repayment was not an admission of guilt.
Slowly, though, Duffy became more hostile to the idea of repaying, worried it would be an viewed as an admission of guilt, and eventually telling Wright he didn’t have the means to repay the amount in question, Wright said.
Soon after, discussions with the Conservative party began, and it was settled that the party would repay Duffy’s housing expense claims, he testified.
“Although I’ve lived to regret it, it was a relatively quick decision for me.”
Days later, on February 26, Wright became aware that Duffy had claimed more than just dubious housing expenses – he had also charged per diems and meals while in Ottawa. The new amount owing was a little more than $90,000.
“I thought this was an outrage on the taxpayers and thought this had to be made whole,” Wright told the court.
The party was no longer willing to foot the bill, but Wright said he felt committed to his agreement with Duffy that included his expenses being repaid in whole.
“I had an obligation to fulfill my end of my arrangement with [Duffy],” Wright said. “I couldn’t think of another way of doing it, so felt I could do it myself … Although I would live to regret it, it was a relatively quick decision for me.”
Wright says he viewed the decision to use his own money to repay the expenses as a way of “helping our system, out government.”
The worst thing he thought could happen if the deal became public was he might feel embarrassed.
“I think my error was I never considered the connotations associated with [repaying the expenses],” he said. “If I’d thought through the connotations I might not have done it.”
READ MORE: 5 things we learned from Nigel Wright’s emails in the Duffy trial
The RCMP investigated Wright but did not lay any charges.
The prime minister has repeatedly — and as recently as this week — denied knowing it was Wright who personally footed the bill.
Duffy faces three charges in relation to accepting money from Wright, including a one-way bribery charge.
The embattled P.E.I. senator is on trial for a total of 31 charges of breach of trust and fraud. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Previously released RCMP documents revealed Wright had the impression Duffy was morally irresponsible, though perhaps not legally or technically at fault, in claiming expenses for an Ottawa-area home he’d owned for years before becoming a senator.
The Crown has made the case that it was Duffy who was an “equal partner” or “instigator” of a scheme that would allow him to tell everyone he had repaid the money when, in truth, he’d managed to get someone else to.
Duffy’s defence says it was the other way around — that he was coerced into admitting he had improperly collected expenses, even though he firmly believed he had done nothing wrong.
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