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Wright’s testimony doesn’t yet implicate Harper in Duffy scandal

So "good to go," Nigel Wright's oft-quoted phrase describing Stephen Harper's go-ahead for action on the Mike Duffy affair, was never about the $90,172.24 cheque to repay expenses.

That's according to the testimony Mr. Wright gave Wednesday at Mr. Duffy's trial. The Prime Minister's former chief of staff told the court that he never informed Mr. Harper that the Conservative Party Fund, headed by Senator Irving Gerstein, had agreed to quietly pay Mr. Duffy's expense tab, at least until the full size of the sum became known and Mr. Wright dug into his own pocket.

Mr. Wright had always said he never told Mr. Harper that he paid Mr. Duffy's tab, but his clarifications from the witness box shrank suggestions of a possible smoking gun linking the Prime Minister to the money. Nonetheless, there was still an unsettling political drama on view, with no benefit to Mr. Harper's Conservatives.

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The first day of Mr. Wright's testimony, under relatively friendly prosecution questioning, will have Conservatives feeling reassured that the Duffy trial isn't going to blow Mr. Harper's election campaign out of the water.

But it was still a tale of complex political machinations in which no one in Mr. Harper's PMO, apparently, ever gave a thought to any option other than cover-up. That probably won't shake Mr. Harper's core supporters, who stuck with him through Senate-scandal twists. But it has plenty of potential to spark qualms among the soft Tory supporters and swing voters that Mr. Harper needs to win a majority government.

Mr. Harper's advisers at least are thankful that Mr. Wright undercut the "good to go" phrase that New Democrats and Liberals have used to suggest the PM approved the payments.

Mr. Wright, a slim, disciplined man who uses words with lawyerly precision, told the court that the things he wanted Mr. Harper to approve weren't about who would pay.

He had negotiated a deal: Mr. Duffy would say publicly that he may have made a mistake in claiming travel expenses while at his long-time Ottawa home, and that he would repay them. In return, the party would actually pick up the tab, auditors would stop scrutinizing Mr. Duffy's expenses, and senators and Conservative MPs would only speak of the affair using agreed-upon media lines.

Mr. Wright testified that what he asked Mr. Harper to approve were those media lines, and the precedent – there were other Conservative senators with potential expense issues, and Mr. Wright pressured Mr. Duffy to admit a mistake and say he'd repay.

And the money? Mr. Wright had arranged, at the time, for the Conservative Fund to pay. But he didn't think he had to tell Mr. Harper. The party often paid MPs' legal fees related to politics, and he didn't discuss those things with the PM, he testified. Paying Mr. Duffy's expenses was similarly reimbursing costs incurred for being "part of the team."

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Mr. Wright's testimony, and e-mails presented at the trial, recounted how PMO staffers, Conservative Senate leaders and Mr. Gerstein, the party's money man, were involved in plans to pay Mr. Duffy's expense bill, remove him from an audit and co-ordinate misleading public statements. There's no indication anyone raised the idea that Mr. Harper might not approve.

Mr. Wright's own forbearance was impressive. Mr. Duffy was a pain. He seemed to agree more than once that he would repay the expenses, but then argue anew that they were justified. He set conditions for repayment, but later admitted he didn't have the money. Then Mr. Wright discovered the bill was $90,000, not $32,000.

Yet there's no indication that Mr. Wright, or his PMO associates, ever considered telling the truth and letting Mr. Duffy deal with the consequences. Only Mr. Gerstein balked at having the party pay the higher tab, but Mr. Wright testified he felt he had to honour the bargain, and pay himself. He never seems to have felt there was another option.

That won't have the shock effect that opposition leaders were hoping for. Mr. Harper's election campaign isn't derailed. But those all-important soft Conservatives and swing voters are getting a prevote behind-the-scenes peek at an episode of the government looking after its own, in which, apparently, no one doubted that's what had to be done.

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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