OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper voiced confidence in his chief of staff, Ray Novak, on Thursday despite court testimony that Novak knew about a secret payment to help a senator extricate himself from an expenses scandal.
Conservative Senator Mike Duffy is on trial for fraud and bribery over dubious expenses claims and a C$90,000 ($69,000) personal check he secretly received in 2013 from Harper’s then-chief of staff, Nigel Wright. Wright wrote the check so that Duffy could repay the expenses.
The scandal and trial involve people who were once close allies of the prime minister, overshadowing Harper’s campaign for the Oct. 19 election. Harper and the Conservatives have been in power since 2006.
The Conservative Party insists neither Harper nor Novak, who replaced Wright as chief of staff, knew about the check for Duffy ahead of time.
But Ben Perrin, former legal counsel to Harper’s office, said on Thursday that Novak had been present during a meeting in March 2013 when Wright revealed he would be paying Duffy.
“He had never discussed it with me or consulted with me in any way ... and so because it was so surprising to me I immediately looked to my right to see Mr Novak’s reaction and he didn’t have any reaction to that,” Perrin told the trial.
Perrin made similar remarks to police in 2014 and his statement to them was read out in court on Tuesday.
At a campaign stop on Thursday, reporters asked Harper if he still backed Novak.
“I’ve been very clear, when people are working for me, they have my confidence. If they didn’t have my confidence, they wouldn’t be working for me,” Harper said.
Opposition leader Thomas Mulcair, whose New Democrats have a narrow lead in opinion polls, said Harper himself is ultimately on trial.
As he criss-crosses Canada to meet voters, Harper has tried to shift focus back to his campaign and away from the courtroom.
“Contrary to what some may be reading, there is one person on trial here,” Harper said. “That person is Mr. Duffy because Mr. Duffy took taxpayers’ money that I believed right from the outset he should not be taking.”
The question of what Harper knew about the payment may not be revealed before the election. The trial is scheduled to adjourn on Aug. 28 and may not resume until November.
Reporting by Randall Palmer, Leah Schnurr and David Ljunggren; Editing by Peter Galloway and Grant McCool