OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's aides forced a political ally to repay expenses he was probably entitled to because they wanted to quash a damaging ethics scandal, Harper's former chief of staff testified on Thursday.
Conservative Senator Michael Duffy is on trial for bribery and abusing expense claims in a high-profile case that could hurt the governing Conservatives in the runup to Canada's Oct. 19 election. The Conservatives have been in power since 2006.
Nigel Wright, Harper's former top aide, said when the expenses scandal became "politically embarrassing" for the Conservatives in February 2013, he leaned on Duffy to repay the money, though the senator may well have done nothing illegal.
"We did not think the public would accept the appropriateness of the expenses we are talking about," Wright told an Ottawa court. "I was certainly putting pressure on Senator Duffy to repay money that I felt he probably didn't, or might not, owe."
The scandal erupted when it became clear Duffy had claimed his full-time home in Ottawa as a secondary residence and filed for tens of thousands of dollars in living expenses.
Duffy said rules in the Senate - Parliament's upper chamber - were so vague that he had done nothing wrong by claiming the expenses, which totaled C$90,000 ($68,800).
Wright said he insisted Duffy repay the money on what he called moral grounds and said Harper agreed. The affair was a crisis for the Conservatives, who came to power promising to clean up federal politics.
"The fact that inappropriate expenses were being claimed by a member of the government caucus was politically embarrassing," Wright said.
Duffy - appointed to the Senate by Harper - eventually agreed to pay but complained he didn't have enough funds. Wright, telling the court "I absolutely wanted the problem to go away", secretly gave Duffy a personal check for C$90,000.
Wright left his job in May 2013 after news of the check became public. Harper has said he knew nothing about the payment to Duffy and took appropriate action to let Wright go when he found out.
Duffy's lawyer, Donald Bayne, told Wright he had engaged in a "a deliberately deceptive scenario" to fool Canadians into thinking Duffy had repaid the money.
Opposition parties say the scandal shows the Conservatives should be replaced. Opinion polls indicate the party could lose its majority in the House of Commons in the election.
Editing by Jeffrey Hodgson; and Peter Galloway