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Duffy trial delivers more damaging facts about senior Conservatives' involvement

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Senator Mike Duffy's lawyer Donald Bayne questioned Stephen Harper's former chief of staff Nigel Wright on Thursday and it was a confrontational affair.

Bayne scoffed at Wright's claim that in paying the $90,000 for Duffy he did a good deed.

The former number one in Harper's office committed an act of pure politics, not charity, Bayne argued.

Duffy's spending problems had become an embarrassment at that point, the defence lawyer asserted, and the $90,000 seemed like an expedient way to make the whole mess go away quietly.

Bayne was particularly scornful of Wright's now notorious biblical justification for maintaining secrecy about the whole affair.

Wright had cited the New Testament, Matthew 6:3 to be precise, which states "when you give to the needy do not announce it with trumpets, and do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing."

Bayne asked Wright if he could use that self-serving biblical citation to rationalize keeping payment of Duffy's expenses by the Conservative Fund a secret. Getting the Fund to do the job had been the plan until its Chairman, Senator Irving Gerstein, found out the sum was $90,000 not $32,000 as he had been told originally.

Gerstein said $90,000 was too rich for his blood.

But when the idea of the Fund paying Duffy's expenses was still alive Wright had agreed to keep it secret.

There is, apparently, no biblical verse to justify that.

And Bayne did not even go into the absurdity of calling Wright's politically expedient gift to a well-heeled senator and former prominent broadcaster "giving to the needy."

Some folks, it seems, have the oddest idea of what constitutes charity.

On the whole, Bayne sought to strip away Wright's self-constructed choirboy image. Harper's former number one person might be soft spoken and clean cut, but he is also, in Bayne's version, a calculating and ruthless political operator.

Bayne did not say it, but calculating and ruthless is what Wright's boss probably wanted him to be.

Wright was willing to go to great lengths to head off public scandal

The defence lawyer took Wright through some of the stages in the unfolding of the scandal, endeavouring to show that the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) and the senior Conservative senate leadership did not, at the outset, believe Duffy had done anything wrong. They only turned on the PEI senator when political damage control required that they do so.

When the Ottawa Citizen's Glen McGregor first broke the Duffy housing allowance story, in December 2012, Senator David Tkachuk, chair of the Senate's Internal Economy Committee, told McGregor that Duffy had acted entirely within the rules. There was no reason for the PEI senator not to claim expenses for his Ottawa residence, Tkachuk said.

Bayne pressed Wright as to the PMO's attitude toward the issue at that point, and after much to-and-fro got the former Chief of Staff to admit that his office's strategy was to do nothing and wait until it all blew over.

"If it's a bad news story and nothing's happening," said Wright, "let nothing happen."

Then, in February of 2013 the story resurfaced with a vengeance, and Wright and his colleagues decided that Duffy had to pay the money back.

Wright still believed that Duffy might have a good legal and technical case. But he thought the public would not buy it.

He even said that he informed Prime Minister Harper that the PMO was going to, in effect, force Duffy to pay back money he might not legally owe.

Bayne quoted another PMO senior official, head of issues management Chris Woodcock, who made the same point.

Duffy had followed the rules, Woodcock told the RCMP, but should have repaid the money because his expenses were politically embarrassing for the government.

At one point, Bayne cited some revealing statements by Conservative party lawyer Arthur Hamilton.

Hamilton thought Wright was excessively worried about the possibility of scandals that could result in the loss of Harper government caucus members.

Wright was scarred by his experience in the Mulroney government, Hamilton explained. Mulroney's Progressive Conservatives, elected in 1984 with a massive majority, were rocked by a series of scandals that forced a number of rookie cabinet ministers to resign. Wright believed those scandals fatally damaged Mulroney.

The former Chief of Staff was willing to go to great lengths, Hamilton implied, to prevent Harper's government from stumbling, publicly, in the same way as did Mulroney's.

Deny, deny, deny

When the issue of Wright's having paid the $90,000 first became public on CTV news, in May 2013, the PMO's initial reaction was to deny there had been a deal with Duffy.

The PMO even advised cabinet ministers to stand in the House and say that nobody in the PMO, save Wright himself, had any involvement.

In fact, we now know there were many more senior Conservatives involved.

The list is long. It includes Harper's Principal Secretary Ray Novak, senior communications advisor Steven Lecce, Woodcock, Harper's lawyer Benjamin Perrin, and a number of Conservative Senators, among them: Marjory LeBreton, Carolyn Stewart Olsen and Irving Gerstein.

And based on the e-mails tabled in court on Thursday, Harper himself was not completely oblivious to what his office was up to. He knew Wright had done something to make it possible for a recalcitrant Duffy to pay the $90,000.

The Conservative leader continues to assert that he "acted" as soon as he found out Wright had paid the $90,000 on behalf of Duffy. 

But at least one of the emails directly contradicts that assertion. It is from Wright to a member of the prime minister's senior communications staff.

"The PM knows, in broad terms only, that I personally assisted Duffy," Wright wrote.

Harper has insisted, all along, that his staff told him nothing more than that Duffy -- and Duffy alone -- had paid back all the money. 

What then did Harper think his Chief of Staff meant when he told the prime minister he had "personally assisted" the troublesome PEI senator?

Did Harper think Wright held Duffy's hand when the latter signed the cheque?

Wright's testimony continues on Friday and next week. It will almost certainly raise more awkward questions for a campaigning Stephen Harper.

 

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