OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper did not know that in order to quiet an ethics scandal his former chief of staff had secretly repaid expenses claimed by the senator at the heart of the affair, the ex-aide testified on Wednesday.
The trial of Conservative Senator Mike Duffy, who is accused of receiving a bribe and abusing expense claims, comes as Harper campaigns ahead of Canada’s Oct. 19 election. Opposition parties say the affair shows voters should end the Conservatives’ near 10-year grip on power.
Nigel Wright, Harper’s former chief of staff, told an Ottawa courtroom that he decided in early 2013 that the only way to kill a raging scandal about Duffy’s expense claims was to secretly give the senator his own personal check for C$90,000 ($69,400) so Duffy could repay the money.
There was concern by Conservatives at the time that the Duffy case was becoming a major embarrassment for the party, which took power in 2006 promising to clean up federal politics.
Asked by prosecutors whether he had told Harper about the check given to Duffy, Wright replied simply: “No.”
His testimony appeared to support Harper’s longstanding insistence that he knew nothing about Wright helping Duffy repay his expenses.
“Mr. Wright was working with Mr. Duffy to make sure he did repay them, and that’s what we were told was going to happen,” Harper said in response to reporters’ questions in Vancouver.
“When I found out that is not what happened, that in fact they had been repaid by somebody else, we made that information public and I took the appropriate action.”
Wright left his job in May 2013 after his check became public. Harper initially said Wright had resigned but amid increasing uproar over the case, later said he had fired him.
Wright told the court he had made a significant error by misjudging how the check would be interpreted.
Harper was heading to Canada’s north to campaign. The opposition New Democratic Party - neck and neck with the Conservatives in opinion polls - said the trip was strategically timed.
“Nigel Wright might be on the witness stand, but it’s Stephen Harper who’s on trial,” said NDP leader Thomas Mulcair.
Wright said he initially thought Duffy had inappropriately claimed C$32,000 in living expenses. To avoid the scandal from spreading, he persuaded the Conservative Party to cover the cost.
Wright said he told Harper that Duffy would repay the C$32,000 but did not mention the party’s promise to provide the money.
He then wrote an email to aides saying “We are good to go from the PM,” which opposition parties say shows Harper knew about the secret payment. Wright said it merely meant he had informed Harper of the outline of the initial agreement.
The party subsequently pulled out of the deal on learning that Duffy owed C$90,000, not $32,000, in expenses.
“I was beyond furious,” said Wright, a millionaire Onex Corp executive. He nevertheless gave Duffy his check on the grounds he had already promised Duffy that he would not need to repay the expenses out of his own funds.
Additional reporting by Randall Palmer and Leah Schnurr; Editing by Jeffrey Hodgson; and Peter Galloway