Mike Duffy trial: Star witness Nigel Wright treated gently

If anything stood out from Nigel Wright's first day of testifying about his role in the Mike Duffy affair it's probably this: nothing he said undermined Stephen Harper's insistence that he didn't know someone else had repaid Duffy's expenses until it become public in May 2013.

Gatekeeper's 'sense of honour' to Duffy will come under scrutiny during defence cross-examination

Nigel Wright, former chief of staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, arrives at the courthouse in Ottawa to testify Wednesday in the trial of Senator Mike Duffy. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

If anything stood out from Nigel Wright's first day of testifying about his role in the Mike Duffy affair, it's probably this: nothing he said undermined Stephen Harper's insistence that he didn't know someone else had repaid Duffy's expenses until it became public in May 2013.

But emails entered as evidence while Wright spoke Wednesday documented how deeply he and his subordinates in the Prime Minister's Office were involved in directing efforts to make the problem of Duffy and his expenses go away without embarrassing the government.

Conservatives have insisted for months that Harper's former right-hand man had no bombshells to drop, nothing to say that would make Harper's bid for re-election more problematic, even coming as it does in the second week of an election campaign.

True, the Harper campaign wasn't taking any chances Wednesday. His crew kicked into full spin mode, issuing news releases reminding reporters that Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is "just not ready" to be prime minister, and that NDP Leader Tom Mulcair's "not so hidden agenda" to block resource development is irresponsible.

But none of that was going to push Wright's testimony — the first time he's spoken publicly of the scandal he helped trigger — from the top of every newscast, from the front pages of newspapers or out of the blogosphere.

Duffy has pleaded not guilty to charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust for claiming $90,000 in expenses that the prosecution says he wasn't entitled to. Duffy says he was. And the senator from Prince Edward Island resisted efforts led by Wright in early 2013 to repay them, until Wright dug into his own deep pockets to make the problem go away.

Under gentle questioning from the prosecution, befitting his role as star witness, Wright recounted his role in those events.

What he revealed Wednesday was less than a complete account.

Asked what he meant in a February 2013 email that Harper was ''good to go'' with a repayment scheme that would have seen the Conservative Party repay Duffy's expenses, Wright said he never told the prime minister where the money was coming from.

Why not? 

The prosecutor never asked.

Donald Bayne, defence lawyer for Duffy, can be expected to rigorously cross-examine Wright beginning Thursday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Wright's only explanation was that he was worried about setting a precedent for other senators with expense issues, and anyway, he said, it's not the sort of thing a chief of staff tells a prime minister.

That's no doubt true. Part of the chief of staff's job is to be a gatekeeper, to make problems go away without filling in the boss.

But another explanation is that Wright knew Harper would reject the plan as a misuse of public money, because Canadians who donate to political parties get a nice tax credit in return.

Wright also explained that he dipped into his own accounts for the $90,000 out of a sense of honour, because he'd committed to ensuring Duffy would not be on the hook.

Wright's reputation precedes

Wright, remember, is a guy with deep pockets. He told the court the payment didn't affect his life, even though he's lived to regret a decision made in relative haste. But he noted he'd already spent tens of thousands of dollars of his money to cover his own expenses incurred in the PMO to pay for staff events.

It's all consistent with the kind of man his friends and colleagues describe.

He is highly regarded by the people who know him as a man of principle, someone driven to succeed.

On Wednesday, Wright looked every part the successful businessman he is, recalling in great detail without prompting the events of 2½ years ago with few mistakes.

He didn't duck. He didn't weave.

Even so, the raft of emails that were released to coincide with his testimony are troubling.

They make it clear that Wright and other key figures in the Prime Minister's Office went to great lengths to keep the Duffy issue under wraps back in the spring of 2013.

They tried, and failed, to stop a Senate committee from investigating his expenses. They tried, and failed, to remove Duffy from an independent audit of senators being done by Deloitte.

And they show the extent to which Wright, and the prime minister's legal counsel at the time, Ben Perrin, cajoled, bargained and negotiated with Duffy's own lawyer at the time on the terms of any repayment.

There's much more in the documents, but prosecutors only touched on a fraction of the two thick volumes tabled in court on Wednesday to build their narrative that Duffy was the instigator, to buttress their case against him.

Defence lawyer Donald Bayne, who begins his cross-examination on Thursday, will no doubt have many others to put before the court that show Wright demanded control over any information related to the Duffy affair and that any statements be pre-cleared by him.

It's expected Bayne will take much longer than the one day Wright has just spent in the witness box. He's already subjected a number of the prosecution's witnesses to gruelling cross-examination, spread over several days.

As for Wright, he runs a half marathon every morning before work. It will be interesting to see if he even breaks a sweat.


Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998. Follow him on Twitter: @chrishallcbc


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