Nigel Wright informed Mike Duffy nobody was going to find argument ‘persuasive’ if he didn’t pay back money

Sen. might have been entitled to claim living expenses for his Ottawa house – but nobody would have bought the explanation, Prime Minister ’s former chief of staff testified at Duffy’s criminal trial Wednesday.

Nigel Wright’s long-awaited appearance at Duffy’s fraud and bribery trial is expected to answer questions about what Harper and his staff knew about the many expenses Duffy claimed from the Senate and what they did to try to squelch the scandal that erupted in 2013 over the longtime Ottawan’s claim that his primary home was in Prince Edward Island — the province of his birth, which Harper had appointed him to represent in the Senate in 2009.

Wright left the Prime Minister’s Office in May 2013 over a $90,000 bank draft he provided to help Duffy repay some of those expenses, the culmination of a long and painful process the ex-politico started describing Wednesday as the trial resumed following an eight-week break. Harper himself has variously claimed that Wright resigned over the payment or that he, Harper, fired him when he found out about it.

The nut of the story Wright has told so far is that Duffy had taken advantage of unclear rules about where a senator could claim to have a “primary residence,” rules so unclear that Duffy even had a case that he was entitled to the money he’d received from the Senate for a Kanata house he bought years before he became a senator, in Wright’s view. But it wasn’t a case that anybody who wasn’t a lawyer would be interested in.

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And Duffy, in Wright’s telling, was afraid that if he said he’d claimed those living expenses improperly, even if it had been an accident, he’d end up ditched from the Senate.

“He was concerned that admitting a mistake would lead to a slippery slope in the media and it would be impossible to keep the media from taking an admission of an error or a mistake and just driving it and driving it until he was hounded out,” Wright testified to a packed courtroom.

The trick, in Wright’s view, was to get Duffy to repay the money, then everyone could say that whatever the underlying facts were, it was over with.

Duffy wasn’t going for that, Wright testified, and at one point harangued him over the phone with a long list of trips he’d taken on Senate or Conservative party business that had taken him away from the Cavendish cottage he’d claimed as his primary home. The question of his expenses was already out in public, winding its way through a Senate committee and an external audit by consulting giant Deloitte.

At some point I stopped Sen. Duffy, or interrupted his recitation of days spent in various places and basically said that I didn’t find it persuasive

“At some point I stopped Sen. Duffy, or interrupted his recitation of days spent in various places and basically said that I didn’t find it persuasive, that Deloitte wasn’t going to find it persuasive, that the committee wasn’t going to find it persuasive, that nobody was going to find it persuasive, and if we continued down this road it just wasn’t going to end well,” Wright said under questions from Crown lawyer Jason Neubauer.

According to Wright, Harper himself had already said, in a conversation with Wright and Duffy on the edges of a caucus meeting of Parliament Hill, that a common-sense take on the situation wouldn’t look good for Duffy, and as politicians they had to take that problem seriously.

Duffy had “acquiesced” to that ruling from the boss, Wright said, but backed away from it after more thought. That’s when everything started to go bad.

Wright is just beginning what’s likely to be several days of testimony. He’s co-operated with the Crown prosecutors, including flying back to Ottawa from his current home in London, England, to testify. He also supplied thick books of emails among prime ministerial staff and Duffy and his lawyer, which he gathered on his way out of the PMO out of concern that he himself might be investigated in the matter, he said.

The case continues.

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