A former top aide to Prime Minister Stephen Harper took responsibility for a political quagmire that’s dogged Canada’s governing Conservatives for more than two years.
Nigel Wright, Harper’s chief of staff between 2011 and 2013, testified Wednesday that Harper had no knowledge of a C$90,000 ($69,215) payment he made to a Conservative lawmaker in 2013 in hopes of ending a controversy over the misuse of expense claims. He was giving testimony at the Ottawa trial of Senator Mike Duffy, who is is facing 31 criminal charges for fraud, breach of trust and bribery.
Wright said he had made an arrangement with Duffy whereby the lawmaker would repay the disputed expenses and be reimbursed by the Conservative Party. After the party rejected the plan, Wright said he felt obligated to make the payment.
“Senator Duffy committed himself to a course of action that included an understanding that he would be made whole,” Wright said in testimony. “I had an obligation to fulfill my arrangement with him.”
While Harper was aware of some elements of the plan to end the controversy, the prime minister was not told Duffy would be repaid, Wright said.
The high-profile testimony from Wright is drawing attention back to the biggest political scandal under Harper’s watch just as Canada’s longest election campaign since 1892 gains steam. Opposition leaders are seeking to take political advantage.
The case, which resulted in Duffy being suspended from the Senate and expelled from the Conservative caucus, marked the first time scandal implicated Harper’s inner circle and raised questions of what the prime minister knew and when he knew it.
“Nigel Wright might be on the witness stand but it’s Stephen Harper who is on trial,” New Democratic Party Leader Tom Mulcair said Wednesday in televised remarks from Levis, Quebec. “Canadians will learn during this election campaign why Stephen Harper doesn’t deserve another four years in power.”
In a bid to capitalize on the increased publicity around the trial, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau held an event Tuesday to promote his plan to reform the Senate, which has been plagued by a number of spending scandals beyond Duffy’s.
“What we are going to see in the coming days out of Ottawa is what happens when a government becomes more focused on its own survival than on serving Canadians,” Trudeau said when asked about the trial at a campaign stop Wednesday in Regina, Saskatchewan.
The scandal has cost the government politically. Conservative polling numbers hit their lowest since the 2011 election soon after the allegations were revealed in 2013 and have never risen back to pre-scandal levels. National averages compiled Aug. 10 by polling aggregator ThreeHundredEight.com show the NDP in the lead with 33 percent support, the Conservatives close behind with 30.8 percent and the Liberals at 27.2 percent.
Harper maintains he always thought Duffy repaid the Senate for the expenses himself and that he had no knowledge of Wright’s financial assistance.
“I said to Mr. Duffy he should repay those expenses. I was told he was going to repay those expenses and we were all told he had repaid those expenses,” the prime minister said at a campaign appearance Tuesday near Toronto.
“When I learned that was not true I made that information public and we have taken appropriate actions to make sure people are being held accountable.”