WATCH ABOVE: Former PMO lawyer disagreed with Harper on residency rules.
OTTAWA – Three of Stephen Harper’s top aides sat around a conference table as they prepared to call Mike Duffy’s lawyer. Over the next several minutes they would talk about Nigel Wright’s plan to pay the beleaguered senator’s contentious and politically damaging expense claims out of his own pocket.
Did any of these three people tell their boss, the prime minister, about the conversation? We still don’t know.
Benjamin Perrin, legal counsel at the Prime Minister’s Office, sat across from Nigel Wright – the office’s top staff member – while briefing him on recent developments in Duffy’s case.
Ray Novak walked into the office. He was the office’s number two — who’s since taken over Wright’s position – and Harper’s closest and longest-serving aide.
As recently as last week, Conservative spokespersons claimed Novak knew nothing about Wright’s arrangement to pay Duffy. But over the past few days, court has heard differently.
That day in March 2013, Perrin told Wright and Novak that Janice Payne, Duffy’s lawyer at the time, said her client didn’t want to repay the funds in question, which now totalled more than $90,000. Her client believed he’d done nothing wrong and was willing to fight any auditor who said otherwise.
“At this point, Mr. Wright interjected and said, ‘Sen. Duffy will be going ahead with repaying his expenses because I will be paying for them.’”
Perrin was floored.
“He had never discussed it with me or consulted with me in any way,” Perrin told the court in Duffy’s fraud, breach of trust and bribery trial Thursday.
“Because it was so surprising to me, I immediately looked to my right to see Mr. Novak’s reaction. He didn’t have any reaction.”
Moments later, the threesome phoned Payne and Wright repeated his intentions to give Duffy the money to repay.
“He stated it very matter-of-factly,” Perrin recalled. “What surprised me was that, without skipping a beat, Mr. Wright and Ms. Payne proceeded to discuss how this funding would be provided from Mr. Wright to Sen. Duffy.”
Novak was on the call throughout, Perrin said.
Perrin’s testimony flies in the face of statements Harper and the Conservative party have been offering for years, and as recently as last week.
The court learned of Novak’s attendance on the call earlier this week when defence counsel Donald Bayne read a portion of Perrin’s interview with RCMP.
Novak’s attendance on that call has been questioned in court for days; though emails suggest he was expected to be on the call, Conservative Party spokesman Kory Teneyke said last week Novak was pulled away from the call before Wright announced his intentions.
The embattled P.E.I. senator is on trial for a total of 31 charges, including breach of trust and fraud. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
The Crown has made the case that Duffy 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.