OTTAWA, Aug 13 (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s aides forced a political ally to repay expenses he was probably entitled to because they wanted a damaging ethics scandal put to an end, 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, in power since 2006, are seeking a rare fourth consecutive term.
Nigel Wright, Harper’s former top aide, told an Ottawa court that when a scandal over Duffy’s expenses became embarrassing for the Conservatives 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 said. “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 in February 2013 when it became clear Duffy had claimed his full-time home in Ottawa was in fact 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 eventually totaled C$90,000 ($68,800).
Wright insisted Duffy repay the money on what he called moral grounds and said Harper had agreed with this approach. The Conservatives came to power promising to clean up federal politics.
Duffy eventually agreed but then said 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 says he knew nothing about the payment to Duffy and took appropriate action when he found out.
“Whether it was within the rules or not, he was making expense claims that did not represent real expenses,” Harper told reporters on the campaign trail.
Opposition parties say the scandal shows the Conservatives should be turfed from power. Opinion polls indicate the party is set to lose its majority in the House of Commons.
Duffy’s lawyer, Donald Bayne, told Wright he had engaged in a “a deliberately deceptive scenario” to fool Canadians into thinking Duffy had paid the money.
$1=$1.31 Canadian Editing by Jeffrey Hodgson; and Peter Galloway