Even according to the prosecution’s star witness, Sen. Mike Duffy didn’t exactly fit the profile of the scheming extortionist in early 2013.
During an interview with the RCMP in July 2013, long after his resignation over the matter in May, Nigel Wright, former chief of staff in Stephen Harper’s office, handled a question about how Duffy comported himself in their interactions, which dealt in the main with efforts to contain the scandal then collecting around the senator for P.E.I.
The officer asked if Duffy had “such a grandiose impression of himself,” as a former news broadcaster with vast reservoirs of dirt on his fellow Conservatives, that he felt he could dictate terms to his handlers in the PMO and in the Tory Senate leadership.
No, Wright told them, according to a transcript read out today in Courtroom 33, where Duffy is on trial facing 31 charges of breach of trust, fraud and bribery.
“I think this is a scared man, flailing around. He thinks … I’ve threatened to kick him out of caucus … He thinks we’re against him … he thinks there’s a vendetta against him …
“He thinks his very existence as a senator is at risk.”
This was a long way from the Runyon-esque Duff, fast-talking his way to a nice buttery landing.
That, anyway, is how lead prosecutor Mark Holmes characterized things back in April, when he called Duffy an “equal partner if not an instigator” in the scheme to net him $90,000, enough to repay the questionable claims me made as a P.E.I. senator on “travel status” at his own comfortable home in Kanata, just outside Ottawa.
Pushing back on that theory today, Donald Bayne, Duffy’s lawyer, forced Wright to relive the moment during that same police interview when he told investigators how he’d “forced” Duffy to repay money he may never have owed in the first place. When Wright in the witness box tried begging off, calling it “persuasion,” Bayne demurred.
“Sir,” said Bayne, “when you force someone to do something—your own words—does he really agree?”
Wright has already said repeatedly in court that Duffy’s expense claims may have been “technically” permissible, that Duffy made good arguments for why his situation differed radically from the predicaments of Patrick Brazeau and Mac Harb, two other senators he’s often lumped in with. But Wright has also said that in his view Duffy’s claims were not “morally” appropriate because he did not incur more costs as a senator living in Kanata than he did as a television broadcaster living in that same house.
Common sense. Canadians wouldn’t be satisfied unless they saw Duffy pay these expenses back, Wright said.
That, Bayne argued, was why the money Duffy used to reimburse Canadian taxpayers came from Wright’s personal account. Expediency. Political expediency.
“I was happy to have people believe he had repaid,” Wright eventually said.
“To inflict on Duffy and the public a deceptive scenario,” as Bayne put it, by way of elaboration.
No, said Wright. And so the day went.
This was Wright’s second day testifying, and his first facing the defender Bayne, who returned to the Elgin Street courthouse in Ottawa yesterday looking sun-browned and ready. He wasted no time getting into the narrative, an iteration of which he introduced as evidence in the form of a smooth-moving series of emails, bound in sequence like an epistolary novel, bouncing between PMO staffers and Tory senators.
It’s unlikely that Wright, a wealthy man now based in London as a managing director with Onex, the private equity firm, normally gets treated as brusquely as he did today by Bayne, who makes an art of his lack of deference.
Wright looked less in command of the room than he did yesterday—indeed he looked occasionally cowed. Only in the afternoon did he began engaging with Bayne, frequently refusing to agree to the lawyer’s language—”It would be very laborious for me to disagree with all of your characterizations,” he told him.
He even asked Bayne to define the word “force”—as in “forcing” to get Duffy to pay—permitting Bayne to retort that that had been Wright’s own word all along.
Wright, as he did yesterday, characterized the fact he paid Duffy in excess of $90,000 as a “good deed,” even quoting scripture to explain why his largesse was kept largely secret—Matthew 6: “when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth.”
When Wright describes such motives, he does so in a stripped down, unadorned way that makes it hard not to believe him. And yet he can appear oddly naive, like someone who never had any business operating in the Machiavellian world of the Hill.
He has a demonstrated penchant for lofty language. “[L]et this small group be under no illusion,” he wrote to colleagues on Feb. 6, 2013, in words that sound crafted to echo Lincoln. “I think that this is going to end badly.” He is referring to how Duffy’s expense claims are surfacing as an issue in media—not exactly Gettysburg.
“And of course it did end badly,” said Bayne.
“Yes, it has,” replied Wright. “It hasn’t ended yet.”
It may reflect the language of the true believer, and Wright is one of those. He worked as a staffer on the Hill under Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives, and later joined the board of the Conservative Fund Canada, the party’s important money-gathering arm, back at its inception over 10 years ago.
Arthur Hamilton, the Conservative party’s official lawyer, peripherally involved in matters before this court, told RCMP investigators that it was Wright’s experience in Ottawa in the Mulroney years that persuaded him to personally pay for Duffy’s questionable expenses, and therefore have rid of the matter.
Hamilton said Wright told him the political scandals that plagued Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives in the 1980s derailed Mulroney’s agenda, and that he would never permit that to happen to Harper’s Conservatives, according to a transcript Bayne read out in court.
Suddenly it made sense why Bayne had, during the first few minutes of his cross, raised the issue of Wright’s days on the Hill back then.
“Was there a scandal during the Mulroney years?” is how Bayne put it almost innocently, prompting laughter from the gallery.
By the end of the day, that era was hovering over everything Wright said from the witness box like a miasma.
Court reporter Nicholas Köhler on the Duffy trial
- Day 1: Mike Duffy talked for a living. On Monday, he spoke six words.
- Day 2: Kafka meets Frank Capra in Courtroom 33
- Day 3: The PM is just a girl he used to know
- Day 4: The subject of honour and the genie of Cavendish
- Day 5: Mike Duffy, patron saint of the good ol’ days
- Day 6: Oversight in Canada’s Senate? There’s no such thing.
- Day 7: Plucking the wings off a visitor from fairyland
- Day 8: The Genie of Cavendish, raining contracts like manna
- Day 9: All the Senate’s a Hollywood soundstage
- Day 10: Ottawa stitches Canada together. Mike Duffy did his part.
- Day 11: The mysterious #duffytrial comes briefly into focus
- Day 12: Nicole Proulx muddies #duffytrial with clarity
- Day 13: Hubris in Courtroom 33. Wait, never mind, it’s gone…
- Day 14: The unfilmable drama: Duffy’s defence takes on a Senate staffer
- Day 15: Courtroom 33 isn’t just another Senate committee
- Day 16: A pox upon this unshakable, inexplicable Senate
- Day 17: A gothic novel plays out in Courtroom 33
- Day 18: Donald Bayne relishes the boredom of his stage
- Day 19: Snippets of human drama, portals into a great unwritten novel
- Day 20: The flare that snagged Donald Bayne
- Day 21: ‘Why not cover a real trial?’
- Day 22: An improper brand of magnanimity
- Day 23: A judge asks for busywork amid a Duffy trial standstill
- Day 24: A rogues’ gallery marches through an otherwise grey day
- Day 25: A father and son enliven the holy ghost of the Mike Duffy trial
- Day 26: The Mike Duffy Tour of Canada
- Day 27: The Mike Duffy trial stays too long at the fair
- Day 28: Mercer the Guileless takes the stand
- Day 29: A veteran assistant on the Hill: Duffy’s latest collateral damage?
- Day 30: How to get bills paid on Parliament Hill
- Day 31: From the Duffy trial, a reporter’s letter to his editor
- Day 32: Duffy in the witness box: Repeat it enough and it may come true
- Day 33: Parliament Hill’s very own Hogwarts
- Day 34: The forensic accountant dissects Duffy’s books
- Day 35: The spectre of Nigel Wright finally swoops into Courtroom 33
- Day 36: Duffy’s trial adjourns until August. Next up: Nigel Wright
- Day 37: ‘I was doing a good deed.’ Nigel Wright takes the stand