OTTAWA – Turning the tables on a key witness, Mike Duffy’s counsel spent hours Thursday suggesting Nigel Wright was more concerned with dousing a political fire than acting morally on the taxpayers’ behalf.
Meticulously reading through hundreds of emails, Duffy’s lawyer, Donald Bayne, consistently returned the court’s attention to Wright’s description in an email of having “basically forced” Duffy to repay questionable housing and living expenses while sitting as a senator.
Bayne’s implication was clear: the former chief of staff crafted a “deliberately deceptive scenario” that misled Canadians while ensuring Duffy repaid the expenses, keeping the reputations of the prime minister’s and government intact.
Wright’s name has become inextricably linked with Duffy’s case since it was revealed that, while serving as the prime minister’s top aide, he used personal funds to cover $90,000 of the senator’s dubious expense claims.
Since that time, through brief statements and Wednesday’s testimony, Wright has maintained he acted in the best interest of the taxpayer.
Though he’s admitting to using some “force” to ensure Duffy went along with the plan to have the expenses repaid, he said in court his approach was based more persistence.
Bayne offered a different take, suggesting Duffy was coerced and forced into submission following “threats” that his status as a senator would be at stake if he refused repayment.
“He firmly believed he didn’t break the rules,” Bayne said of his client.
Throughout his second day on the stand, Wright upheld his claim that his foremost concern was getting Duffy to repay the housing and living expenses that had landed at the centre of the Senate expense scandal.
Whether his motivation came from a place of morality and respect for the taxpayer, as he testified on Wednesday, or the drive to protect Harper and the Conservative government at any cost, became the question on Thursday.
Bayne recalled an RCMP interview with Conservative Party lawyer Arthur Hamilton in which he told authorities Wright had a constant eye on avoiding political scandals, but Wright said that is not what drove him to use his personal funds to repay Duffy’s expenses.
Opting to dip into his own account was a quick decision, Wright told the court – one he said he’s lived to regret.
“My view is I was helping others, doing a good deed. This is sort of a Matthew 6,” Wright said to the Crown prosecutor, citing scripture from the New Testament. “Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”
There was a time when it was understood that Duffy would repay the questionable living and housing expenses, long understood to amount to $32,000 but which later ballooned to $90,000.
Eventually, though, the embattled senator told Wright he didn’t have the means to.
“What we needed to accomplish was that the expenses be reimbursed and that Sen. Duffy not continue to claim them going forward,” Wright told the court Thursday.
Without Duffy having the capital to repay and after exhausting other possible routes — including having the Conservative Party Fund foot the bill — Wright, now famously, took matters into his own hands.
He issued a $90,000 bank draft to Duffy’s counsel, who then transferred the funds to the Receiver General of Canada.
On the stand, Wright told the court that, however briefly, he did consider the possibility of his payment scheme becoming public.
“I didn’t think it would be seen as a scheme,” he said, adding he simply hadn’t attached any significance to the fact he’d used his own funds to repay a sitting senator’s controversial expenses.
The defence jumped: “Sir, if there was a shred of truth to that, why didn’t you, from the start say you’d paid?” Bayne asked.
Wright answered, saying he thought Duffy would be better off with the public thinking the senator had made the decision and payment on his own.
But why, then, would Wright have written an email saying the government “would be happy” for the public to believe Duffy had repaid his expenses, Bayne asked. Was this all a well-crafted deception? Is that why the funds were routed through Duffy’s counsel?
No, Wright said, downplaying any possibility of orchestrating a public cover-up. He’d suffered a lapse in judgement and anticipated the possibility of his payment becoming public, he told the court.
This is Wright’s second day on the stand in the trial of Duffy, the embattled Stephen Harper appointee to the Senate and former broadcast journalist.
Duffy faces three charges in relation to accepting money from Wright, including a one-way bribery charge.
The embattled P.E.I. senator is on trial for a total of 31 charges of breach of trust and fraud. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
The Crown has made the case that it was Duffy who was an “equal partner” or “instigator” of a scheme that would allow him to tell everyone he had repaid the money when, in truth, he’d managed to get someone else to.
Duffy’s defence says it was the other way around — that he was coerced into admitting he had improperly collected expenses, even though he firmly believed he had done nothing wrong.