Politics

Stephen Harper says Mike Duffy's Senate expenses 'could not be justified'

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper was met in Vancouver with questions about Senator Mike Duffy's ineligible expenses, despite being a long distance away from Ottawa, where Nigel Wright, his former chief of staff, gave much-anticipated testimony in court on Wednesday.

Conservative leader maintains he did not know about Nigel Wright's $90K payment to senator

Former Harper Chief of Staff Niegl Wright tells reporters he thinks the answers should be given in court. 0:43

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper was met in Vancouver with questions about Senator Mike Duffy's ineligible expenses, despite being a long distance away from Ottawa, where Nigel Wright, his former chief of staff, gave much-anticipated testimony in court on Wednesday.

Duffy, whose trial resumed Wednesday, 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 $90,000 he received from Nigel Wright.

Harper was asked why he didn't know that Wright was the one who repaid Duffy's ineligible expenses. "Mr. Duffy came to me and I said to him that his expenses in my judgment could not be justified. You could not justify claiming expenses you did not actually incur — regardless of what the rules were," Harper said.

Nigel Wright, former chief of staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, makes his way through a crush of media as he arrives to testify at the criminal trial of embattled Senator Mike Duffy in Ottawa. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

"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," Harper said.

Wright told the RCMP during the course of its investigation in 2013 the prime minister was made aware on Feb. 22, 2013, that Duffy had agreed to repay his ineligible expenses, but not that the $90,000 was coming from his personal savings.

But an email from Wright to Benjamin Perrin, Harper's legal counsel, which came to light in court documents has raised more questions than it has answered to date.

Led to believe Duffy would 'repay': Harper

"I do want to speak to the PM before everything is considered final," Wright said in an email to Perrin and others in the Prime Minister's Office. Less than an hour later, Wright wrote, "We are good to go from the PM."

On Wednesday, Harper maintained that it was his understanding that Duffy would be made to repay his ineligible expenses — not that Wright would pay them for him.

"I did not believe Mr. Duffy's expenses could be justified and I thought he should repay them. And Mr. Wright was working with Mr. Duffy to make sure he did repay them. That's what we were told was going to happen.

"When I found out that is not what happened, that in fact they had been repaid back by somebody else, we made that information public and I took the appropriate action against people who were involved in that," Harper said in Vancouver.

In fact, Harper made it public once it had been reported in the news. And while Harper initially told the House of Commons that Wright had "offered his resignation" and that he'd accepted it, in a radio interview months later, Harper flip-flopped and said Wright had been "dismissed."

On Wednesday, Wright told an Ottawa courtroom he felt he had "an obligation" to follow through on an initial plan to see Duffy repay his expenses, which included having the Conservative Party repay approximately one-third of the amount.

"I lived to regret that decision," Wright said in court.

'Good to go with what?': Mulcair​​

Wright's testimony in Ottawa gave federal party leaders on the campaign trail plenty of ammunition against the Conservative leader on day 11 of the federal election campaign.

Federal NDP Leader Tom Mulcair speaks as NDP candidate Jean-Luc Daigle, left, looks on, in Lévis, Que. Mulcair says Stephen Harper is the real issue in the trial of Conservative-appointed Senator Mike Duffy, which resumed today in Ottawa. (Cameron MacIntosh/CBC News)

On Wednesday afternoon, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said there was still a gaping hole between Harper's explanation of what he knew and testimony heard from Wright in court today.

"Good to go with what?" Mulcair asked during a mid-afternoon campaign stop in Quebec City.

"What we saw today and heard today was Nigel Wright saying that … Mike Duffy never had any intention of reimbursing his own expenses."

Mulcair urged Harper to come clean on what he knew of co-ordinated efforts between senior members of his staff and Conservatives in the Senate to alter a final report into Duffy's ineligible expenses after the Crown introduced hundreds of emails in court. The RCMP filed many of those same emails in court in 2013.

A final Senate report into Duffy's expenses was amended from its original draft version to be less critical of the senator.

"What we learned also today, according to the emails that were brought into court, was that there was interference in the reports of the Senate by the Prime Minister's Office — something that they tried to deny all along," Mulcair said.

"There is still a lot of explaining to do."

Remove LeBreton: Liberals

Justin Trudeau's Liberals also pointed to email exchanges laid out in court as proof the Prime Minister's Office was involved in "a scheme to obscure the public's knowledge of details on how Mike Duffy was abusing taxpayer money."

In a news release issued after Wright was finished testifying for the day, Liberals called on Harper to remove retired senator Marjory LeBreton from his campaign.

LeBreton, who is currently working as a senior adviser on Harper's election campaign, was one of several key Conservative senators named in the email exchanges.

During an afternoon campaign event in La Ronge, Sask., Trudeau said that Wright's testimony showed there was a "level of interference and control" of the Senate leadership by the PMO.

"Any fiction that Mr. Harper has tried to push that the Senate is somehow an independent body has been completely... shown to be wrong."

Earlier in the day, Trudeau accused Harper of looking out for his party's own interests rather than following through with Senate reform.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau accused Harper of breaking his promises on Senate reform in Regina on Wednesday. Trudeau's Liberals are urging Harper to remove former senator Marjory LeBreton from his campaign. (Pool/CBC)

"What we're going to see in the coming days out of Ottawa is what happens when a government becomes more focused on its own survival than on serving Canadians the best possible way," he said from Regina.

"We cannot believe this prime minister when it comes to promises around the Senate or democratic reform," Trudeau said.

While there are currently 22 vacancies in the 105-seat Senate, Harper announced a week before the federal election was called that he won't be filling any more Senate vacancies until reforms are made.

But Aniz Alani, a Vancouver lawyer, is calling on Harper to ask the Supreme Court of Canada whether a moratorium on Senate appointments is constitutional.

Earlier in the day, Mulcair was in Lévis, Que., where the party wants to hold and increase its record 54 seats won in the 2011 election.

"Nigel Wright might be on the witness stand, but it's Stephen Harper who's on trial," Mulcair said.

The NDP leader listed a number of allegations against Conservative Party politicians and aides, and said Canada can't afford to re-elect Harper.

Mulcair is calling for abolition of the Senate and said today a fourth Conservative mandate would invite more scandal.

While in Vancouver, Harper made a campaign pledge to help homeowners purchase their first house.

Follow @susanamas on Twitter

With a file from CBC's Laura Payton

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