Spending Scandal Dogs Harper Through Canadian Election Campaign

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper continued to be hounded by questions about a Senate spending scandal that has begun to dominate his re-election campaign.

Nigel Wright, who served as Harper’s chief of staff for two years, has been testifying at the trial of Mike Duffy, a former Conservative senator facing 31 charges in relation to the misuse of expense claims. Wright gave Duffy C$90,000 ($68,700) from his personal account in 2013, hoping to snuff out a growing scandal for the Conservative government.

The trial, taking place in the middle of campaigning for the Oct. 19 election, has revealed that several government staff were aware of parts of the plan to pay off Duffy and manage the political fallout from the scandal, with the prime minister’s current chief of staff, Ray Novak, involved in some of the correspondence. Harper insists only Wright and Duffy should be held accountable.

“It was those two gentlemen’s obligation to make sure this was done correctly,” Harper said at a stop today in Fredericton, New Brunswick, in response to persistent questioning by journalists accompanying him on the campaign tour. “They did not, and they are solely responsible,”

Wright took the witness stand Wednesday, and his testimony is refocusing attention on the biggest scandal for the Conservatives since Harper became prime minister in 2006.

Inner Circle

The case, which resulted in Duffy being suspended from the Senate and expelled from the Conservative caucus, marked the first time serious wrongdoing had implicated Harper’s inner circle and raised questions of what the prime minister knew and when he knew it.

On his first day of testimony, Wright took the blame for the payment to Duffy. While Harper was aware of some elements of the plan to end the controversy, the prime minister wasn’t told Duffy would be repaid, Wright said.

Since then, Duffy’s legal team has sought to suggest in the trial the scheme was part of a broader effort by Harper’s office to minimize the damage from the scandal, with Duffy only a reluctant participant. Opposition leaders are calling on Harper to fire Novak and others implicated in the matter.

In testimony Monday, Duffy’s attorney Donald Bayne went through e-mail evidence with Wright, arguing he and other staff in Harper’s office forced Duffy to agree to the deal for funds to be repaid when Duffy would rather have made his case to auditors reviewing the file.

‘Damage Control’

“This is all political damage control,” Bayne told Wright. “You’re not going to let the man defend himself because it’s more important that you bury this political problem and do it quickly.”

Wright said he was persistent with Duffy that the expense claims should be repaid. “I was not compelling Senator Duffy against his will,” Wright said. Bayne asked Wright why he told Harper that Duffy would be repaying funds himself.

“That’s not true and you knew it wasn’t true,” Bayne said. “Duffy was not going to repay.”

Wright said he didn’t think it was a “significant” distinction to tell Harper where the money was coming from. “I don’t think I lied to the Prime Minister,” he told Bayne.

Bayne told the court he didn’t expect the case will hear directly from Novak. He referred Monday to Wright as a “relatively self-interested witness” and said Harper’s staff acted as a “conspiratorial consort” to resolve the matter.