New documents police filed with an Ontario court are providing fresh insights into behaviour of a high-powered cast of characters involved in the bizarre case of the prime minister’s former top aide paying off Sen. Mike Duffy’s disputed expenses.
The RCMP filed the information as part of a bid to gain the court’s permission to obtain still more documents in their ongoing investigation into how Nigel Wright, the Prime Minister’s former chief of staff, ended up cutting a $90,000 cheque in a bid to make the Duffy expenses controversy go away.
The Mounties are trying to build a case that Wright and Duffy “did commit breach of trust in connection with the duties of their offices,” contrary to a section of the Criminal Code. Through his lawyer, Wright denies any wrongdoing.
Depending on how far the police go with their investigation, that might eventually have to be decided by the courts. Regardless of the outcome, though, today’s fresh material—including many emails obtained by the RCMP—fill in a picture of top-level Conservatives frantically trying to contain the damage of Senate spending allegations early this year.
The key events unfolded behind closed doors last February and March. It all revolves around Duffy’s expenses, especially that he collected a housing allowance as if he lived mainly in Prince Edward Island, while in fact his primary residence was in an Ottawa suburb. Wright finally decided on March 22 to pay back, out of his own deep pockets, the money Duffy should never have claimed.
It’s a complicated saga, but today’s documents cast some key players in a new light:
He’s been cast in some versions of this story as Duffy’s sympathetic would-be saviour, but the RCMP uncovered evidence that Wright was often enormously frustrated with Duffy. On Feb. 20, for instance, Duffy sent an email to PMO officials saying: “Nigel says his analysis is I am in violation of the housing allowance policy…” Wright responds: “I did not say that, and if you continue to misquote me, then we will be speaking only through lawyers going forward.”
The Prime Minister has repeatedly said he knew nothing about Wright’s unusual decision to personally provide $90,000 so Duffy, who said he didn’t have enough money to repay it himself, could make good the disputed expenses. But in an email exchange on May 14, involving the Prime Minister’s communications director and press secretary, Wright suggests Harper was not entirely in the dark. Wright sent an email to the PMO’s top media managers, saying: “The PM knows, in broad terms only, that I personally assisted Duffy when I was getting him to repay the expenses.”
As the head of Conservative fundraising, the senator was involved in discussions about whether the party might cough up the money Duffy needed. Gerstein told the party’s convention in Calgary early this month that, while the party paid Duffy’s $12,000 legal bill, he also “made it absolutely clear to Nigel Wright that the Conservative Fund of Canada would not pay for Sen. Duffy’s disputed expenses, and it never did.” However, today’s RCMP documents suggest Gerstein told police investigators that he was considering paying Duffy’s expenses when they were thought to be around $30,000, although he was worried about “the optics,” and only turned Wright down when it turned out Duffy’s bill was $90,000, at which point Gerstein “was emphatic that there would be no more consideration to repay on behalf of Senator Duffy.”
The Prime Minister’s Office’s lawyer at the time of the Wright-Duffy deal, who has since left the PMO, has previously said he “was not consulted on, and did not participate in, Nigel Wright’s decision to write a personal cheque to reimburse Senator Duffy’s expenses.” The RCMP’s summary of what it’s investigation uncovered describes Perrin’s role in implementing Wright’s decision: “Nigel Wright decided that he would personally cover the cost of reimbursing Senator Duffy. After back and forth negotiations between [Duffy’s lawyer] Janice Payne and Benjamin Perrin (legal council within the PMO) terms of the agreement were set.” During these talks, the lawyers became involved in all sorts of nuances, including agreeing on “media lines” everyone involved would use in public.