Testimony puts Canada Tories in campaign hot seat
The Canadian prime minister`s former chief of staff lifted the lid Wednesday on backroom dealings that led to a senator facing bribery charges and sullied the Tory brand ahead of October elections.
Nigel Wright, who resigned in May 2013 in the wake of a Senate expenses scandal that started it all, was testifying at the trial of Senator Mike Duffy.
As a star witness for the prosecution, Wright detailed how he had brokered a deal with Duffy to repay questionable expenses and make an embarrassing situation for the government go away -- and then how everything fell apart.
The revelations came as Canada`s three main political parties are in a statistical dead heat ahead of the October 19 poll and casts a pall over Prime Minister Stephen Harper`s Conservative Party.
Duffy had been outed by the media in late 2012 for claiming expenses for a cottage he owned on Prince Edward Island, while living in the capital Ottawa.
He insisted that the expenses were legitimate but eventually agreed to repay them and in an interview with public broadcaster CBC said he had simply made a mistake in filling out "confusing" expense forms.
When the estimated cost of the repayment ballooned from Can$32,000 to Can$90,000 (US$24,660 to US$69,360), after including Ottawa restaurant meals Duffy had also charged to the Senate but was not reasonably entitled to do, according to Wright, the deal fell apart.
"I felt this was an outrageous fraud on the taxpayer," Wright testified.
At this point the Conservative Party changed its mind about chipping in, and Duffy told Wright that he did not have the money to repay the Senate, so the independently wealthy Wright on a whim decided to pick up the tab.
Wright said he had previously sought Harper`s approval for committing the government to supporting Duffy`s spin on Senate spending in media interviews.
In an email entered into evidence, Wright wrote he was "good to go from the PM" on the deal, suggesting some input from Harper on the matter.
But he said "no" when asked if Harper was ever told about the Can$90,000 payment.
On the campaign trail, Harper repeated that he did not know at the time about the monies Wright paid to Duffy, which some have suggested was hush money.
"You could not justify claiming expenses you did not actually incur -- regardless of what the rules were," Harper told reporters.
"Mr. Wright was obviously speaking to Mr. Duffy and had indicated to me that Mr. Duffy would repay those expenses, which is exactly what Mr. Duffy told the Canadian public," he said.
But New Democrat and Liberal leaders insisted that Harper appointed Duffy to the Senate and hired Wright.
"Nigel Wright might be on the witness stand, but it`s Stephen Harper who`s on trial," New Democratic Party leader Thomas Mulcair said.
Duffy pleaded not guilty to 31 charges of bribery, breach of trust and fraud. He faces up to 14 years in prison if convicted on all counts.