Donald Bayne vs. Nigel Wright

Donald Bayne vs. Nigel Wright: ‘That’s not actually true, is it?’

Nic Köhler on the transformation of the Crown’s star witness

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Nigel Wright, former chief of staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, arrives at the courthouse in Ottawa on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2015 for his second day of testimony at the criminal trial of embattled Sen. Mike Duffy. (Fred Chartrand/CP)

Nigel Wright, former chief of staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, arrives at the courthouse in Ottawa on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2015 for his second day of testimony at the criminal trial of embattled Sen. Mike Duffy. (Fred Chartrand/CP)

Sgt. Greg Horton, the RCMP officer who led the probe into the Senate expenses scandal, once asked David van Hemmen how his former boss, Nigel Wright, took the news that Sen. Mike Duffy had actually claimed somewhere in the region of $80,000, much more than the $30,000 they’d previously thought.

“He was pissed,” said van Hemmen, who then corrected himself. “He was upset, I should say.”

Van Hemmen, Wright’s executive assistant, knew Wright would take the news badly, and he told Horton he was glad their work schedules were such that he wouldn’t have to tell him in person.

Sen. [David] Tkachuk just called,” van Hemmen wrote on Feb. 26, 2013. “He received an email from the Clerk, Gary O’Brien, apologizing and stating that Sen. Duffy also charged meals (per diems) and taht [sic] the actual amount owed will be in the $80K range. He apologized for misleading us and has spoken to Chris M[ontgomery] as well. Unbelievable.”

Speaking to the RCMP all those months later, van Hemmen elaborated on his own views about how the Tory leadership in the Senate was handling the Duffy matter. “These people are screwing up … Are you bad at your job or what? … Wow, this is so unprofessional.”

An hour and a half after his email, Wright replied to van Hemmen. “Marjory told me,” he wrote of the Senate’s new accounting. “I am beyond furious. This will all be repaid.”

    It is perhaps interesting to note at this juncture how even at this point, one of the very lowest in the office’s response to the Duffy scandal, the Harper PMO and those in its orbit drop not even a single expletive.

    Not a @#$%& or a #$@&%*. Not even a &%#@$.

    Maybe it’s too much exposure to the transcripts of Oval Office tapes featuring former president Richard Nixon, or a reflection of Canada’s willingness to accept that, now and then, even the PM will permit him or herself a well-placed “fuddle duddle.” Maybe it’s that we now look to the foul-mouthed Rahm Emanuel, mayor of Chicago and former chief of staff to Barack Obama, and Malcolm Tucker, spin doctor from the BBC political comedy The Thick of It, to teach us how backroom operatives ought to talk.

    Whatever, the lack of colourful language in the PMO’s Duffy emails seems odd, especially given what else they contain, dirt-wise.

    In the hundreds of emails entered as exhibits in this the trial of Sen. Duffy, who stands charged with 31 counts of fraud, breach of trust and bribery, you get nary a one.

    Related reading: Read Nigel Wright’s emails on Mike Duffy 

    Marjory LeBreton, then leader of the government in the Senate, does at one point tell Duffy that his health card is none of the media’s “GD business.”

    Wright answers a troubling email about the inability of high-ranking Tory senators to push through his “Duffy scenario” with a good old fashioned “FHS” (“for heaven’s sake,” for anyone not up on their euphemisms for minor blasphemy).

    And Duffy himself pulls out a “phack”: “it is time for me to say phack it,” he writes Ray Novak, then the PM’s executive assistant, now his chief of staff. “Let deloitte decide.”

    All of it suggests Wright and his minions saw themselves as clean-living people, pure of tongue and good of deed, even as they enacted a plan to make Canadians believe Duffy paid the Receiver General of Canada $90,172.24 of his own cash to cover his questionable expenses.

    “It was better to have people believe that the money was coming from him,” Wright told court today during his fourth day in the witness box, his third facing the wrath of Duffy lawyer Donald Bayne.

    “Better for him,” Wright added—of Duffy—”better for the government.”

    Related reading: Meet the players in the Mike Duffy trial 

    From his perch at his lectern these past three days Bayne has presided over a transformation of the Crown’s star witness: Wright has bled confidence and credibility such that this afternoon he seemed a pale version of the man who last Wednesday commanded the room.

    He sat in the box passive, resigned, all of a sudden without even a modicum of oomph.

    That is perhaps because Bayne forced Wright into some almost Clintonian verbal contortions, and while none of them had the pop of “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”—there is no “phacking” in this political scandal, which in Canada generally requires a canoe—they came awful close.

    Wright conceded that in his now infamous “good to go” meeting with Harper he told the PM it was Duffy who would be repaying the expenses he claimed as a P.E.I. senator on “travel status” at his home in Kanata, where he’d lived for years.

    “That’s not actually true, is it?” Bayne asked Wright, who agreed that in fact the plan at the time was for the Conservative Fund of Canada to pay them. (Wright later took the hit himself.)

    “Why would you lie to the Prime Minister,” Bayne asked him.

    Wright appeared unsurprised by the question, and took it on in the manner of a man whose task was now at hand. “I don’t think I lied to the Prime Minister,” he said, explaining how “that wasn’t on my list of things I needed to check with him.”

    Indeed, Wright did not think the fact that Duffy wasn’t using his own money was “a distinction that was that significant.”

    Meanwhile, a plan to “limit intervention from the Ottawa bureaus and or Opposition mobilization” by springing Duffy’s mea culpa on the CBC’s Charlottetown outpost was, as Wright put it, part of his “plan to help” Duffy with his media relations. Rather than, for example, to avoid scrutiny.

    And Bayne helpfully pointed out how all the media talking points—scripts written by PMO staffers and distributed to Duffy, Sen. Tkachuk and others—contained the falsehood that Duffy would be reimbursing the Canadian taxpayer, even though Wright knew these statements were inaccurate.

    Wright told the court he did not think the fact someone else would be paying the money in Duffy’s stead was “significant.”

    “If it wasn’t significant, why did you insist on secrecy?” Bayne demanded to known, and this is when Wright said it was better for Duffy and for the government if people thought Duffy had paid.

    Wright said Sen. Irving Gerstein, chair of the Conservative Fund, the party’s fundraising arm, had asked that Wright keep its involvement covert. Wright later expanded that secrecy to cover the whole deal.

    Nor was that the last court heard of Gerstein today. Apparently, you see, he has senior contacts at Deloitte.

    Bayne insisted again and again that Duffy resisted the PMO’s plan to, as Bayne might put it, hoodwink Canadians, and Deloitte’s probe of Duffy was a central part of this arrangement. The PMO wanted that audit scuttled.

      But Duffy believed his claims were not improper, wanted to argue his case before the external Deloitte auditors, charged with making an assessment on this accounting.

      Wright did not want Duffy advocating his position, believing it would embarrass the government, and he became frustrated with the way his Tory allies in the Senate—LeBreton, Tkachuk, Carolyn Stewart-Olsen—could not seem to unsic the auditing firm.

      Bayne suggested that Wright enlisted Gerstein all over again to solve the problem of Deloitte, and sent him in to communicate with his contacts at the firm about what the PMO wanted auditors to conclude about Duffy and his questionable housing allowance claims.

      Wright rejected that notion, telling the court he felt the Tory senators handling the file were having difficulty communicating with the firm and that he “just wanted [Gerstein] to fix the broken telephone problem.”

      This seemed to contradict a normal understanding of what the PMO players actually wrote in their emails—although at least they did all this communicating without using vulgar language.

      Duffy, for his part, now appears as happy as he has ever been in this courtroom, despite today’s being his 40th day here: he has adopted a way of interlacing his fingers that speaks of renewed attention in the process, and perhaps of delight.

      When Bayne said that the communications strategy surrounding Duffy’s P.E.I. mea culpa prompted journalists to “smell a rat,” Duffy grinned, as though he remembered what rats smell like to a journalist—delicious!—and then willed the corners of his mouths down again fast.

      Much of his lawyer’s theatrics are no doubt for the media’s benefit: Justice Charles Vaillancourt did not permit Bayne to ask Wright a question based on the van Hemmen RCMP interview, and so, while Wright was ejected from the room during a Crown objection, Bayne made sure to read the interview out. It was juicy stuff.

      Wright, meanwhile, has given up the fireworks he experimented with on, say, the afternoon of his first day facing Bayne, when he pushed back on each one of Bayne’s hyperbolic characterizations, rejected his loaded language, rephrased every question to his benefit.

      Instead Wright today appeared to suffer quietly the mounting pressure of the vice now closing in on the witness box with each new PMO email that flickers on the courtroom TV screens.

       

      Court reporter Nicholas Köhler on the Duffy trial