OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s aides were so concerned about the fallout of an ethics scandal involving a high-profile Conservative senator that they took tight control of Senate actions to try to limit the damage, a court heard on Friday.
Emails released during the third day of testimony by Harper’s former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, at the fraud and bribery trial of Senator Mike Duffy showed Wright and other aides directing actions in the Senate, the upper chamber of Canada’s Parliament, to try to quell an uproar in 2013 over C$90,000 ($68,700) in dubious expense claims made by Duffy.
The Duffy case is becoming a major factor in the run-up to Canada’s Oct. 19 election as the governing Conservatives try to extend a near 10-year term in office.
Duffy, a popular former TV journalist, was appointed to the Senate by Harper, and the scandal over his expense claims has been embarrassing to the Conservatives, who came to power in 2006 promising to clean up federal politics.
The Senate is dominated by Conservative members and they showed few signs of resistance when pressed by Wright as the Duffy crisis spread in early 2013.
The office of Conservative Senate leader Marjory LeBreton came up with its own ideas on how to handle it, but an irritated Wright told aides in an email that LeBreton’s office should do “nothing with our prior approval”. He added: “We will not set anything in motion without knowing where we want it to end up and how we will make that happen.”
Under questioning from Duffy’s lawyer, Donald Bayne, Wright said the “we” he had been referring to was Harper’s office.
A few minutes later Bayne told Wright that Harper’s office effectively controlled the Senate leadership.
“I certainly did ask that office to coordinate and clear with us before they took actions,” Wright said.
Under pressure, Duffy eventually agreed to pay back the expenses but did so only with a personal check that Wright secretly gave him. Wright left his job in May 2013 when news of the check leaked out.
Opposition parties say they find it hard to believe Harper’s protestations that he knew nothing about Wright’s check, given that several of the prime minister’s top aides were in the loop. In testimony on Monday, Wright said Harper did not know about the plan to repay the expenses.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Peter Galloway