OTTAWA — Stephen Harper’s former legal adviser says he was kept in the dark about many of the dealings between the Prime Minister’s Office and Mike Duffy, but Benjamin Perrin told a court on Friday that he thought Harper himself approved a deal.
Perrin said he took the now infamous “we’re good to go from the PM” line from the prime minister’s then-chief of staff Nigel Wright to mean Harper had reviewed a 2013 plan to get Duffy to repay his expenses and had given the go-ahead.
The plan, among other things, would have seen the party foot the bill for the expenses and the senator would say publicly he had made a mistake.
Not that there was anything wrong with that arrangement, Perrin told the court. Under cross-examination, he said that if there was anything illegal or improper, he would have spoken up.
The question of how much Harper knew about Duffy’s expense saga before it burst into the public spotlight has dogged the prime minister for years and continues to follow him on the campaign. He insists he first learned of Wright’s decision to cover the expenses himself through media reports and his understanding had been that Duffy would write his own cheque.
Harper has also said only Wright and Duffy knew of the payment, but Perrin cast doubt on that in earlier testimony, saying Harper’s current chief of staff, Ray Novak, was part of a conference call where it was discussed.
Wright earlier testified that Novak had only popped in and out of that conversation. And Wright said he told Harper was that he was going to get Duffy to repay in order to set a precedent that errant senators would be held accountable, but didn’t go into specifics.
Wright told the court he didn’t lie to the prime minister, but just didn’t think he needed to hear the details. “We’re good to go,” came after that conversation.
Perrin said there was a lot Wright didn’t tell him either, including details of conversations he was having with Duffy at the time Perrin was supposed to be helping negotiate the terms of the deal.
“As counsel in the matter, I was clearly left in the dark and my client was not informing me,” Perrin told the court. “This is not a proper way to conduct a legal matter.”
Perrin also testified he had understood that the arrangement — including the proviso that a Deloitte audit into Duffy be called off — was prompted by a set of demands from the senator.
Duffy faces 31 counts of fraud, bribery and breach of trust and the issue of deal speaks to the element of bribery. While Wright was not charged with giving Duffy the $90,000 to repay his expenses, the Crown alleges Duffy tried to extract the cash by setting the terms.
But the court has also heard that some of the proposals in the plan came from the Senate’s internal economy committee, not Duffy. They included calling off the audit.
Court was told Perrin was uncomfortable with that element and spoke up, hoping it would signal to Wright he wanted off the case.
“It was a very awkward position I found myself in and I didn’t like it,” he said. “Lawyers act for all kinds of people.”
At one point, Duffy’s team sought to amend the deal to specify that the matter would never be referred to the RCMP, but the PMO demurred, saying legally and politically, they couldn’t commit to that.
That being said, there was no “whiff of criminality” around the issue at the time, Perrin said.
“The potential for there to be a criminal issue here was never in our minds,” he said. “We thought we were dealing with a potential violation of a Senate rule.”
Perrin ultimately left his job, and is now a tenured professor at the University of British Columbia.
The trial resumes on Monday for a week before a lengthy break.