OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper knew his aides planned to force a former political ally to falsely admit to wrongdoing as part of an effort to cover up a scandal, a lawyer for the defendant said on Tuesday.
The remarks are significant since they suggest that Harper knew more than he has conceded about the case of Senator Mike Duffy, who went on trial on Tuesday on 31 charges of fraud and bribery.
The trial could hurt the chances of Harper and his right-of-center Conservatives winning a rare fourth consecutive election this October.
Harper appointed Duffy to the Senate, Parliament’s upper chamber, in late 2008. Formerly a well-known journalist, he soon became a valuable fund-raiser for the party.
Prosecutors say Duffy improperly claimed more than C$80,000 ($64,000) in travel and living expenses after becoming a senator.
When news of this broke in the media in December 2012, Duffy quickly became an embarrassment to Harper, who came to power in 2006 promising to clean up government.
Duffy’s lawyer, Donald Bayne, said his client had been following Senate rules and was innocent, but under immense pressure from Harper’s then chief of staff, Nigel Wright, and others, agreed in February 2013 to admit publicly he had made a mistake and would repay the money.
Bayne, citing a statement Wright made to police, said the chief of staff had talked to Harper to tell him that: “We are basically forcing, Mr Prime Minister, someone to repay money that they probably didn’t owe.”
In the police statement, Wright continued: “I wanted the prime minister to know about it and be comfortable with that.”
Bayne said he would later cite evidence proving Wright and others pressured Duffy “to capitulate to a scenario concocted ... with the purely political purpose of controlling the spiraling political damage to Prime Minister Harper and his government”.
Wright resigned in May 2013 after it emerged he had secretly paid Duffy C$90,000 to cover the repayment of the expenses.
Harper has insisted he had no idea about the payment but Bayne’s remarks will no doubt increase calls by the opposition for him to explain exactly what he knew and when.
Harper, speaking to reporters on Tuesday, said he would not be commenting on the case.
Polls already show the Conservatives are unlikely to retain their majority in the House of Commons in October’s election.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Peter Galloway