For the first time since he drew up the infamous bank draft 29 months ago, Nigel Wright sat calmly in the witness box and precisely explained why he decided to transfer $90,000 to Mike Duffy.
He explained the “good to go” email after a meeting with Stephen Harper and he walked a courtroom through the increasingly frustrating and heated negotiations with the moving target known as Duffy, the tentacles of this damage control effort stretching through Harper’s office.
Wright was poised, never flustered, under benign questioning, but still so much of this makes no sense.
Because Wright was swiftly put through his paces by a friendly Crown, there were too many answers left hanging without follow up and even more questions left unasked.
Emails released Wednesday that buttress some earlier missives released by the RCMP show the extraordinary lengths Harper’s office went to to craft a narrative for Duffy, put him in a “different bucket,” remove him from an audit, burnish his Prince Edward Island bona fides and do whatever was needed to make this problem go away.
They agreed to put some “down-home Mike Duffy” in an agreed-upon statement and dealt with Duffy demands that his case never be referred to the RCMP, that Government leader Marjory LeBreton urge caucus to vote against any move to remove him from the Senate – all against constant carping that he didn’t have the money to repay his dubious expenses.
Harper knew nothing more than the broad strokes, we are told, because his office wouldn’t let him get down in the weeds, a proposition as perplexing today as it was in 2013.
Wright never told Harper he was paying Duffy’s $90,000 in inappropriate expenses, backing Harper’s long-held narrative. Why didn’t he tell him? We don’t know. Wright was never asked.
He described marching down to Harper’s office in the Langevin Block to get prime ministerial approval on media lines for a matter “of some controversy,” which were actually lines that misrepresented Duffy’s spending problem.
Wright knew he was putting pressure on a caucus member to repay money he thought he might not actually owe, was worried about a precedent because other senators were facing similar questions and
wanted to alert the PM to potential “caucus management” issues at play. But there was no mention of the means of payment.
He never told Harper there was a plan afoot to repay Duffy $32,000 (as the tab was then thought to be) from the Conservative fund – money raised from donors – or that Duffy’s legal fees would be paid by the
These were just not typically the matters he would trouble Harper over, Wright said, even though Harper was already immersed in the Duffy problem and had publicly debated him (along with Wright who intervened) after a Conservative caucus about nine days earlier.
And then there was the $90,000 transfer itself. Wright says he now regrets it, says it was a hasty decision but a private one.
If it became public, he thought he would be embarrassed and admits he didn’t think through all the connotations of the decision.
For a man who was such a titan on Bay Street, perhaps it is second nature to try to spend yourself out of trouble – to put a price tag on ending a problem, but it’s hard to believe he would advise executives at
troubled companies to dip into their own wallets to repay possibly fraudulent expenses.
As he testified, $90,000 wasn’t going to put a dent in his net worth.
But the altruism card was overplayed. “I viewed it as helping out our system and government,” Wright said, who said he had to keep such a good deed quiet.
Besides, he had a deal with Duffy and it had to be fulfilled, “and I couldn’t think of another way to do it.”
But the deal was cut when it was thought Duffy owed $32,000. A “beyond furious” Wright continued to honour a deal even when the tab topped $90,000.
Clearly, Duffy had them cowed. They were worried about him going “squirrelly” on the weekend political shows.
There are 94 employees in the PMO and a good portion of them were spending increasing amounts of time dealing with the Duffy problem and none of them – even the cerebral wunderkind Wright – knew how to fix this, short of cutting him a personal cheque and telling him to shut up.
On day one, Wright, as expected, protected Harper. Tougher days of cross-examination loom but nothing burst onto the campaign trail Wednesday. But voters should probably wonder about a bloated
office purportedly running the country that was consumed with secret machinations to protect the reputation of a man abusing taxpayer money.
Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column usually appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Copyright 2015 – Torstar Syndication Services