Duffy Trial: A closer look at the Wright-Woodcock exchange - Macleans.ca

Duffy Trial: A closer look at the Wright-Woodcock exchange

A PMO insider gives context in the exchange that led to Nigel Wright’s big revelation about covering Duffy’s costs

Nigel Wright, former chief of staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, leaves the Ontario Court of Justice in Ottawa August 12, 2015. Wright has been called as a witness in the trial against Mike Duffy, a former ally of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who is on trial for fraud and bribery. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

Nigel Wright, former chief of staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, leaves the Ontario Court of Justice in Ottawa August 12, 2015. Wright has been called as a witness in the trial against Mike Duffy, a former ally of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who is on trial for fraud and bribery. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

The author Andrew MacDougall was Stephen Harper’s chief media spokesman and director of communications from 2012 to 2013.

Well, that was fun. My Maclean’s piece on how emails could get missed in the PMO has generated lots of feedback. And by feedback, I mean opprobrium. Let’s just say I didn’t convince many that a Duffy email from the Prime Minister’s chief of staff could, or would, be ignored by a “subordinate.”

The exercise did, however, prompt me to take a closer look at the exchange on March 8, 2013, between ex-chief of staff Nigel Wright and former PMO issues-management director Chris Woodcock. It’s Tab 61 here, in case you want to follow along.

The lion’s share of the coverage of this exchange has focused—understandably—on the big moment: the email with an FYI from Wright telling Woodcock of the $90,000 repayment. Not much (if any) ink has focused on the back-and-forth preceding it. That’s too bad, because I think the back-and-forth adds some interesting context.

Again, this insider context will convince no one.

I had originally conceived of doing this as a Twitter essay—but it grew to be too long. Here is what I would have tweeted:

1) The subject line of the email exchange was labelled “Sen. Wallin”—and was initiated by reporter Jordan Press (then) of Postmedia.

2) The email was sent by Press to Fred Delorey (FD) of the CPC in relation to Sen. Wallin’s travel expenses.

3) The email exchange, then, was not a “Duffy” email. It was—for subject line purposes—a Wallin email. (No Duffy sirens going off.)

4) Press asks if, and why, the party would cover some Senate money for Wallin. He also asks if a similar discussion about Duffy would be happening.

5) At this point, Press would have known that Duffy had said he would be repaying the money. A smart reporter, Press wanted to know how.

6) FD flips the email to Woodcock (CW) on his Gmail account 40 minutes later. CW flips it to Wright (NW) five hours after that.

7) Note the lack of urgency. This is a (still private) inquiry about Wallin—not an urgent follow to breaking Duffy news (or a night-Fifing).

8) Put differently, the inquiry needed to be dealt with—but there was no hard allegation that needed to be solved RIGHT NOW.

9) The email goes to CW during the point in CW’s day when QP prep needs are acute (11 a.m.). The email only gets forwarded to NW after QP.

10) QP prep period is the busiest part of CW’s day. Delorey’s email would have been one of hundreds pouring in during this window.

11) FYI: the PM’s QP binder has responses to hundreds of potential lines of opponent inquiry, in addition to the 10-15 news-of-the-day issues.

12) After the hullaballoo of QP, CW re-engages and begins formulating a response to the inquiry—assumes (to NW) that the party would not comment.

13) The first paragraph of NW’s response to CW rules out CPC $ for Duffy or Wallin on Senate expenses. Only party biz would be covered by CPC $.

14) It’s worth recalling here that the objective for CW in this exchange is to answer the Wallin (and, by extension, Duffy) question from Press.

15) NW closes the first paragraph with “we” should comment, but check with CPC. That’s the action point for CW; he needs no more info from NW to act.

16) (When you get 700 to 1,000 emails a day, you tend to stop reading after you get what you need from an email.)

17) NW then—in a subsequent paragraph—FYIs CW that no consideration is being given by CPC for Wallin $. Duffy $ is also rejected.

18) NW then—immediately below the first FYI and above his signature—writes the second FYI that he is personally covering Duffy $.

19) Minutes later, CW responds with a proposed line, i.e., proposes a resolution to the issue discussed in the Wallin email chain.

20) In his response, CW acknowledges NW’s first paragraph and suggests a line. He does not address either of NW’s FYIs.

21) This is the first time CW would have heard of NW covering Duffy $. There is absolutely NO REACTION in his email back to NW. None.

22) This proves nothing, but is surely a point in CW’s favour, when considering whether he did or did not read the entire email.

23) Even the most blinkered partisan would expect a reaction. If not a “holy s–t,” than a “10-4” or “understood.”

24) Instead, CW deals only with the media line in his response. NW gives the okay, but says to check with the party.

25) In summary: The email in question is labelled Wallin, not Duffy, was a new line of inquiry, and was not dealt with urgently.

26) It isn’t as simple as an “urgent” Duffy email from his “boss” not being read. It would have been another in a long list of daily issues.

27) Info needed to action a response was acknowledged. Info that was surplus to requirements was not.

28) There was absolutely no reaction to the $90,000 bombshell. Is your poker face that good?


Duffy Trial: A closer look at the Wright-Woodcock exchange

  1. Yep, you’re right. This will convince no one. The right partisans have already decided that every word coming out of the PMO is Gospel, or that there are sufficiently disgusted by the betrayal of their perception of Conservative values that they won’t beleive any of it.

    The Left has decided that anyone who has so much as breather the same air as Steve and his employees has been irreperably tainted by pure evil and couldn’t speak the truth to save a puppy (although those puppies would almost certainly be served to Steve for dinner at 24 Sussex).

    And the one percent in what we can generously call the middle who might still be convinced one way or another almost certainly don’t care enough to read this in the first place.

    For me, having worked in a busy office (although nothing compared to the PMO), I find it easy to believe that Woodcock could have missed an important line in one of the hundreds of emails he recieves in a given day, and even if he had read it, it is entirely possible that it either didn’t sink in, or that he forgot the exchange and retconed his memory in the way that every human being does. However, given Perin’s testimony, we know Novak was in a meeting that discussed what was happening, so whether he read an email, we know he knew what was going on.

  2. The GCHRD works hard to stay on the non-partisan side of the line when commenting. However, recent concerns that staff of the Prime Minister’s office are interfering with witnesses require the bright light of plain public comment.

    The GCHRD’s work is motivated by a clear trend of governments moving outside the realm of policy changes to interfere directly with process for partisan advantage.

    The Harper government’s willingness to ignore conflict of interest, succumb to corruption and ignore court judgments, has now descended to interfering with the justice system directly.

    We must demand these behaviours stop at once and offenders be prosecuted!

    • bad politicians operate where the rules are weak
    • there are simple, proven rules to stop them
    • we need to make sure those rules are present as basic standards in all levels of government, all the time

  3. I buy this. I very often don’t read everything in every email.

  4. Those who allege the knowledge of Novak or Woodcock of the Wright payment is the “smoking gun” that proves Harper lied when he said he first heard about the payment from Wright weeks later need to explain why, even if they DID have that knowledge (and Mr. MacDougall presents a compelling case that at least Woodcock probably didn’t) – how does that equate to Harper learning about it prior to when he said he did?

    In particular, why would a subordinate to Mr. Wright, upon learning of the payment from Mr. Wright – even if he thought the information had some degree of significance – think he should immediately share the information with Harper? Especially if the subordinate thought the imminently reasonable thought that, if Wright was telling the subordinate about the payment, Wright had probably already told Harper as well? Alternatively, if the subordinate thought Wright probably hadn’t told Harper, but should have, why would the subordinate then think it was incumbent upon the subordinate to rat out Wright – his boss – to Harper with great dispatch?

    • I would tend to agree with you in terms of Steve. Based on his reactions, I do think that this was an example of a staff, and particulairly the Cheif of Staff, protecting the boss and just handleing something. However, it does speak rather sharply to the type of people Steve has surrounded himself with, and given the influence of the PMO, especially under this Prime Minister, that is almost as concerning as the possibility of Steve’s active knowledge of the affair, which, again, I do not beleive to be the case.

      • About all this trial has revealed about Steve choice of who to surround himself with is that (a) he doesn’t always pick perfect human beings and (b) when he finds out one did something he considers unacceptable, he fires them. A good question for those who insist he’s picked PMO staff badly is how they feel about his SCC appointments.