OTTAWA – Stephen Harper is facing accusations that he misled Canadians about the Mike Duffy expenses scandal after a court document contradicted the prime minister’s version of events.
Under intense questioning about the affair throughout the spring, Harper repeatedly insisted that his chief of staff, Nigel Wright, acted on his own when he decided to give Duffy $90,000 to reimburse the Senate for invalid expense claims.
“Those were his decisions. They were not communicated to me or to members of my office,” Harper told the House of Commons on June 5.
But the RCMP, which has launched a criminal investigation into the matter, says in a court document that Wright recalls telling three other senior people in the Prime Minister’s Office about the transaction.
Wright had not been interviewed by the Mounties at the time the document was filed in court by lead investigator Cpl. Greg Horton, on June 24. But the document recounts a June 19 meeting with Wright’s lawyers, Patrick McCann and Peter Mantas.
The lawyers told the RCMP that Wright recalls telling his assistant, David van Hemmen; Harper’s legal adviser, Benjamin Perrin; and Chris Woodcock, director of issues management in the PMO, about his intention to personally give Duffy the money to reimburse the Senate.
Perrin, who has since left the PMO, has denied he was consulted or participated in any arrangement between Duffy and Wright.
Wright resigned as Harper’s chief of staff in May, five days after news of his “gift” to Duffy leaked out.
NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus said the court document shows Harper misled Parliament.
“What is very clear is that the prime minister of this country and his key ministers misled Parliament and Canadians about a potentially illegal payout that was organized out of his office,” Angus said in an interview Friday.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, speaking to reporters in Regina, said Harper “has lost all credibility on this.”
“He has from the very beginning done nothing but dodge questions, give partial and erroneous answers and basically not demonstrate the kind of transparency and openness that Canadians deserve.”
Harper has insisted he knew nothing about the transaction until it was first reported by news media and Wright’s lawyers back up that contention in the court document.
Even so, Angus said Harper had ample opportunity after the news broke to find out the extent of his office’s involvement and to provide correct information to Parliament.
“A plan was cooked up with key advisers and key senators to make a political problem go away,” Angus said.
“But where the plausible deniability falls apart is when the prime minister starts getting asked questions about what happened. Clearly, then he would’ve been briefed so he must have known (the correct facts).
“There’s no possible explanation that he would not have been briefed once this story broke and so it was incumbent on him to come clean with Canadians and that didn’t happen.”
Harper spokesman Andrew MacDougall declined to discuss the court document, other than to issue an email statement: “This file was handled by Nigel Wright and he has taken sole responsibility.”
“The (court) affidavit is clear that the prime minister was not aware of the payment.”
Wright issued only a terse statement through his lawyer: “I have offered and given my assistance to the investigation and I intend to continue to do so. I have no further comments at this time.”
Angus said the document also raises disturbing questions about the Conservative party’s willingness to flout the law.
According to Horton, Wright also told Sen. Irving Gerstein, who controls the ruling party’s purse strings, about his intention to give Duffy the money to reimburse the Senate.
Indeed, his lawyers told the RCMP the party was initially prepared to repay the money for Duffy, until it discovered the price tag was three times steeper than originally thought.
“When it was realized that the cost was actually $90,000, it was too much money to ask the Conservative party to cover,” the document says.
“Wright then offered to cover the cost for Duffy, believing it was the proper ethical decision that taxpayers not be out that amount of money.”
Party spokesman Fred DeLorey did not respond directly to questions about the Conservatives’ willingness to foot Duffy’s bill. He said only: “The Conservative Fund did not pay or reimburse any of the ineligible expenses.”
If it was illegal for Wright to give a cash gift to a sitting senator, Angus said it would have been equally illegal for the party to do so. And he predicted Tory donors will be furious to discover how the party was prepared to use their contributions.
“That they would use the money from people who believe in them to pay off, to make allegations of fraud go away is very, very disturbing and crosses all manner of ethical lines … (And it) raises really major questions about the loosey-goosey attitude toward the law that the Conservative party seems to apply.”
Trudeau said the party’s willingness to pay Duffy’ expenses begs the question why Conservatives were so eager to “make his problems go away.” In his own view, the reason is simple: Duffy was a “phenomenal fundraiser” for the party and Conservatives wanted to keep that cash flowing in.
“This is all about money,” Trudeau asserted.
The court document, known as an “Information to Obtain a Production Order,” indicates that the Mounties believe Duffy committed “breach of trust and frauds on the government” by filing inappropriate expense claims and accepting an illegal payment from Wright.
Horton says he believes there was an agreement between Duffy and Wright that constitutes “an offence of frauds on the government.” Wright gave Duffy $90,000 and a promise that a Senate report on his expense claims “would not be critical of him” and, in return, Duffy was to clam up.
“Wright’s own lawyers partially confirm this by saying that Wright had two conditions of Duffy in return for the money, to pay it immediately and stop talking to the media about it,” Horton says.
He notes that the Senate’s initial report on Duffy was indeed sanitized to remove paragraphs that were critical of the senator’s behaviour and that one of two Conservative senators chiefly responsible for the sanitizing, Sen. David Tkachuk, has admitted he was in contact with Duffy and Wright during the audit into Duffy’s expenses.
The scandal revolves primarily around Duffy’s claim that his primary residence is a cottage in Prince Edward Island, not his longtime home in Ottawa. It has expanded to involve ineligible Senate travel expenses claimed while on vacation or campaigning in the 2011 election for Conservative candidates, who also paid his expenses.
“I believe that Senator Duffy has demonstrated a pattern of filing fraudulent expense claims,” Horton says.
According to his lawyers, Wright “was unaware of any fraudulent expense claims on Duffy’s part” when he gave him the money. The document does not explain how Wright thought Duffy had managed to rack up $90,000 in ineligible claims.
The court document — which seeks a court order to enable the RCMP to obtain Senate records of Duffy’s expense claims, credit card statements and detailed mobile phone billing statements, among other things — sheds more light on Duffy’s improperly claimed expenses.
According to Horton, Duffy held an Ontario drivers licence from 1971 until May 2009. He applied for, and was issued, a P.E.I. drivers licence only after Harper appointed him to the Senate in December 2008.
The former broadcaster did not have a P.E.I. health card. In the midst of a Senate examination of his claim that his primary residence was in P.E.I., Duffy called the office of the province’s health minister, Doug Currie, last December to try to speed up his application for a health card.
The senator asked one of Currie’s assistants about the application process. One of Duffy’s aides contacted Currie’s office twice more that same day asking to have the senator’s application expedited, the document says, “assuring her that if it was it could be kept confidential.”
The application was not expedited and Duffy was not issued a P.E.I. health card.
Duffy also listed his Ottawa address as his primary residence on his 2007 passport application and again when he renewed his passport in 2012, the court documents say.
Horton notes the RCMP has not yet interviewed Duffy, Wright, Perrin, Duffy’s aide Diane Scharf or Tkachuk, who recently resigned as chair of the Senate internal economy committee.
While both Wright and Duffy are under investigation, Horton says Wright’s lawyers were informed last month that “a decision on whether to interview Wright as a suspect or witness had not been made.”
The RCMP is also investigating inappropriate living expenses claimed by Sen. Patrick Brazeau, a former Conservative who now sits as an independent, and Sen. Mac Harb, a former Liberal who now sits as an independent.
The Senate last month gave Brazeau and Harb 30 days to repay their expense claims or have their Senate salaries garnisheed. Both maintain they’ve done nothing wrong and have vowed to fight the repayment order.
Harb grudgingly issued a cheque Friday for $51,482.90, advising the chair of the Senate’s internal economy committee that “he forwards this cheque under protest, which means that he vigorously denies any liability and he intends to pursue his judicial review application in the Ontario Divisional Court.”
The cheque covers the amount of ineligible living expenses Harb was deemed to have racked up over a two-year period examined by an external auditor. However, he has since been ordered to pay a total of $231,649, covering a period of eight years.
The deadline for Brazeau’s $48,745 repayment passed earlier this week without a payment.