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Amid Senate scandal, Nigel Wright's Bay Street friends stay on his side

Nigel Wright, then chief of staff for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, is shown in Ottawa on Nov. 2, 2010.

SEAN KILPATRICK/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Stephen Harper may have cut loose his former chief of staff this week in Parliament over the Senate expenses scandal, but friends and former business associates of the veteran Bay Street executive are rallying to the defence of Nigel Wright.

Tom Long, a friend and managing director at executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates in Toronto, said he finds widespread support and admiration for Mr. Wright, who's still on leave from private equity giant Onex Corp. after leaving the Prime Minister's Office in May.

"I talk to a lot of people by virtue of my work … people's fundamental view of him hasn't been altered one iota. Not one iota," Mr. Long says.

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Mr. Wright's influence goes deeper than the here and now. He has quietly been active at every stage in the evolution of the modern Conservative Party and is at least partly responsible for making Mr. Harper what he is today. Now, Mr. Wright is oddly absent from the event meant to be the finale for the Harper government's much vaunted reboot.

At the Conservative party convention in Calgary Thursday, Jason Kenney, the Employment Minister, also defended Mr. Wright's character – an apparent attempt to lessen the impact of Mr. Harper's criticisms of Mr. Wright this week.

"I know Nigel Wright to be a person of good faith, of competence, with high ethical standards. And as far as I can tell, this was an uncharacteristic lapse of judgment on his part, both the decision to write a cheque and apparently the way it was handled thereafter," Mr. Kenney told the Calgary Herald in an interview Thursday.

Mr. Wright only recently become a household name because of the expenses controversy but the wealthy Torontonian has for some time cut a high profile in the Canadian business community, not just because of his record at Onex but also because of his extensive charitable work and donations.

"Everybody sees him as a guy of high integrity, unbelievable ability," said Mr. Long, a long-time player in Canada's conservative movement.

Mr. Wright exited the Prime Minister's Office in May, 2013, several days after it was revealed he had dipped into his own personal wealth to write a $90,000 cheque for Senator Mike Duffy. The gift provided the PEI politician with sufficient funds to reimburse taxpayers for questionable expense claims – a controversy the PMO wanted to make disappear.

The Toronto executive has so far not returned to Onex and is putting in long hours at an Ottawa soup kitchen as he waits for the RCMP to finish their investigation into the Senate scandal as it relates to Mr. Duffy.

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Mr. Harper, however, has increasingly turned on his former top aide as questions over the Duffy affair mount. This week the Conservative Leader revised his description of how Mr. Wright left the PMO, saying he was "dismissed" where Mr. Harper had previously said resigned.

In a remarkably sharp shift of tone, the Prime Minister on Tuesday accused Mr. Wright of deceiving him on the $90,000 cheque. "On our side there is one person responsible for this deception and that person is Mr. Wright," Mr. Harper told the Commons as he tried to contain the political fallout.

Mark Hilson, a former colleague of Mr. Wright at Onex, now works as a managing partner at Romspen, a Toronto-based investment company specializing in real estate.

He expressed dismay at how Ottawa politicians have tried to shift the blame.

"The way the whole thing is unfolding is not very nice. It's not gracious. It's not being handled in a professional way. It's not the way a corporation would handle it," Mr. Hilson said.

"It seems like everyone is out for themselves … running for cover."

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Everyone interviewed carefully avoided criticizing Mr. Harper's handling of the matter. But they said they remain convinced Mr. Wright's reputation is intact.

"We all have redoes that we wish we could have in our lives and I imagine if Nigel had to do it over again he would have made different choices," Mr. Long said.

"But I don't think anybody can fault his values or his motivation."

Added Mr. Hilson: "Would he be welcome back in business even after this reputational hammering? One hundred per cent."

Mr. Long said he believes the episode will discourage other Canadians with significant business expertise from entering politics.

"I think the broader perspective on this which I think some people are missing is that this is going to make it much more challenging to attract highly accomplished people into public life," Mr. Long said.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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