Mike Duffy trial: Nigel Wright forced senator to accept PMO deal, lawyer says

Mike Duffy's lawyer and the Crown's key witness Nigel Wright battled it out in court Thursday over whether the senator was forced to accept a deal cooked up by members of the Prime Minister's Office that made him admit he may have mistakenly claimed living expenses.

Prime minister's former chief of staff cross-examined during senator's fraud trial

PM's former chief of staff cross-examined during senator's fraud trial in Ottawa 5:00

Mike Duffy's lawyer and the Crown's key witness Nigel Wright battled it out in court Thursday over whether the senator was forced to accept a deal cooked up by members of the Prime Minister's Office that made him admit he may have mistakenly claimed living expenses.

"I put pressure on him," Prime Minister Stephen Harper's former chief of staff told Duffy's lawyer Donald Bayne, in what was at times a tense and contentious cross-examination.

"By that I mean I was persistent. I certainly told Senator Duffy what I wanted him to do and I was persistent.  And eventually he agreed."

Yet during an interview with the RCMP about the senator's expenses, Wright himself said the PMO had discussed a plan that was "basically forcing" Duffy to repay them. 

Duffy has pleaded not guilty to 31 charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery related to expenses he claimed as a senator and later repaid with money from Wright. 

In February 2013, the PMO had been attempting to squash the controversy that had arisen because Duffy, a P.E.I. senator, had claimed living expenses for his Ottawa residence, even though he spent most of his time in the capital.

Although Wright has testified that Duffy may have done nothing legally wrong by making those claims, and that he may have been entitled to those claims, the general public would likely not have a similar view.

Members of the PMO, including Wright, wanted Duffy to agree to a deal in which he would admit he had made an unintentional mistake and say that the expenses, at the time thought to be $32,000, would be repaid. In turn, the Conservative Party fund would actually cover the expenses.

"What you call agreement, I would suggest, sir, we will see is capitulation," Bayne said. "It's not a true agreement when you have to force somebody to do something. Do you think that's a true agreement?"

"Describe to me how you think I forced him," Wright asked.

"You used the term, not me," Bayne said, raising his voice.

​Bayne was referring to an interview Wright had with the RCMP, in which Wright was discussing how he told the prime minister about the plan to have Duffy's expenses paid back. (Wright had testified on Wednesday that he never told Harper the plan was to have the Conservative Party fund pay for those expenses.)

In that interview, Wright said he told Harper that "we're asking, basically forcing someone, to repay money that they probably didn't owe."

Wright testified that he didn't love that description and that what he meant by it was that he was requesting and persuading Duffy to repay his expenses.

​"You're suggesting I'm using the word 'forcing' in a way that removes all independent ability of the individual," Wright said.

"Then why did you use the word?" Bayne asked.

"I told you I used it in the sense that I described to you," Wright said. 

Deal goes sour

On Feb. 22, Duffy went public about the expense controversy, telling CBC News that he "may have made a mistake" by claiming the housing allowance and that he would be paying the expenses back.

But the deal went sour when it was learned Duffy's expenses actually totalled $90,000. That's when Wright personally intervened with his own money, court heard.

Earlier, Wright testified that he didn't think his $90,000 payment of Duffy's controversial expenses would be seen as a scheme, and thought it would be in Duffy's best interests if Canadians believed the senator had repaid.

Bayne referred to another statement Wright had made to police in which he described Duffy as "a scared man, flailing around," who thought Wright was threatening to kick the senator out of caucus and force him to repay the money.

In that statement, Wright also said the Prime Minister's Office "didn't think they were going to publicize the fact that I paid. The government was going to be happy if people thought that Duffy paid."

"And it's a deliberately deceptive scenario," Bayne argued. "Your voter base — your Tory voter base — they weren't going to like this if it came out that this was a bigger scheme."

Wright responded that he didn't think it would be seen as a scheme and that what was important was that the expenses got reimbursed.

"I did not attach the significance to my being the source of those funds that everybody else has," Wright said. "Clearly that was not a great judgment by me."

But Bayne challenged that statement.

"Sir, if there was a shred of truth to that, why didn't you say on the day in question, 'I paid?'"

Wright responded: "I thought Senator Duffy was better off, much better off with people believing that he had repaid."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's former chief of staff Nigel Wright arrives for his second day of testimony at Senator Mike Duffy's fraud trial in Ottawa. (Lorian Belanger/Radio-Canada)

Wright's second day of testimony comes on the 38th day of the judge-only trial, which resumed Wednesday after last sitting on June 18. It was the second hiatus of the high-profile trial, which began April 7 in the Ontario court of justice in Ottawa. This third phase will continue until Aug. 28, and, with more time assuredly needed, break until it would resume again in mid-November.

When asked about Wright's testimony while on the campaign trail in Regina, Harper said that ​"when this came to my attention, my concern in this entire matter was that Mr. Duffy was making use of taxpayers' dollars in a way that could not be justified.

"He was, whether it was within the rules or not, he was making expense claims that did not represent real expenses and I have said repeatedly that I could not justify paying expense claims for expenses that were not actually incurred. I was told Mr. Duffy was going to repay those expenses, he would explain his own story on that, and that to my knowledge was exactly what he did until I found out otherwise." 
 

With files from The Canadian Press

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