Government’s answers on Senate scandal still a moving target

OTTAWA – “We would have a cup of coffee, I think, once or twice,” former prime minister Brian Mulroney told a 1996 deposition of his relationship with German businessman Karlheinz Schreiber.

“I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” U.S. President Bill Clinton famously told reporters in 1998 about his dalliance with a White House intern.

Neither answer was necessary false, but both left out key information — Clinton had other kinds of intimate relations with Monica Lewinsky, and Mulroney received cash-stuffed envelopes in a business arrangement with Schreiber during those casual meetings.

Similarly, the Senate expenses scandal has become a study in carefully chosen words and information left unsaid. The government has disclosed precious little detail about the $90,000 payment made to Sen. Mike Duffy by Nigel Wright, the prime minister’s former chief of staff.

Monday offered a fresh example: after insisting for months that his chief of staff resigned in May over the controversy, Stephen Harper himself told radio station News 95.7 Halifax that Wright was “dismissed” for writing the cheque.

“I had a chief of staff who made an inappropriate payment to Mr. Duffy — he was dismissed,” Harper said in the interview.

Here are some other key questions that have been posed in a variety of ways since May, and how the answers have evolved.

The Documents

Thanks to RCMP court filings, Canadians know now that Duffy sent Wright a binder of emails and documents on Feb. 19. There was also a Feb. 20 email, copied to another one of Harper’s aides, in which Duffy allegedly describes the conversation he had with Wright the night before about repaying his expenses.

Rewind back to the spring, however, and the government appeared to know nothing about any documents.

The opposition has asked in every possible way about the existence of documents inside the Prime Minister’s Office related to an agreement. Access to Information requests have turned up nothing.

“What precisely was the secret deal that the Prime Minister’s Office made with Sen. Duffy? Show us the documents,” Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said on May 21.

“Our understanding is there is no document,” Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird responded.

In the case of the documents, the word “legal” became popular.

“Can the Conservatives say definitively that there were no documents in the Prime Minister’s Office that related to the Mike Duffy and Nigel Wright scandal? To be clear: no emails, no memos, no notes. Yes or no?” NDP House leader Nathan Cullen asked on May 22.

Said Baird: “In fact, no one in the government knows about any legal agreement with respect to this payment.”

Another MP, the NDP’s Lysane Blanchette-Lamothe, called them out on the word “legal.”

“Is there a non-legal document regarding the $90,000 payment that Nigel Wright made to Mike Duffy?” she asked, to no avail.

“We are not changing the subject; we are talking about accountability and responsibility when it comes to taxpayers’ money,” responded then-heritage minister James Moore.

Finally, on May 29, Harper acknowledged that something other than a strictly legal document did exist.

“This is an email, I understand, of Mr. Duffy, a former Conservative senator,” Harper said.

“As we know well, the activities of Mr. Duffy are being looked into by the appropriate authorities. Of course, any and all information we have will be shared with those authorities.”

Last week, Harper confirmed that his office had actually provided information to the police. “We have given all information to those authorities that are looking into this matter,” he said.

None of the documents in question have been made public, either by Harper’s office, Wright or Duffy.

Who knew what

From Day 1, the Prime Minister’s Office portrayed Wright’s decision to give Duffy $90,000 as a completely personal one, insisting he “acted alone.”

But early media reports named PMO lawyer Benjamin Perrin as having been involved. RCMP documents filed in court later named two other staffers, and the head of the Conservative Fund of Canada, Sen. Irving Gerstein. According to Wright’s lawyers, the party was prepared to foot the bill for about $30,000 of Duffy’s expenses.

Last week, Duffy said even more people were involved — another unnamed lawyer at the PMO and one at the party headquarters. Duffy alleged the $90,000 repayment came with numerous strings, including a threat that if he didn’t play ball he would be expelled from the Senate.

Back in May, when the opposition was asking who else was involved, the government was less than forthcoming.

“Nobody, including the prime minister, has come clean about what happened in the Prime Minister’s Office, so who else in the Prime Minister’s Office knew about this deal…?” asked NDP MP Charlie Angus on May 22.

Baird would only emphasize that Harper didn’t know: “It was very clear that he was not consulted about this payment. He did not know about this payment in advance.”

It was far from the only example of the government refusing to directly answer the question.

“Let us keep this one simple. Were any lawyers in the PMO aware of what Nigel Wright and Sen. Duffy were cooking up?” asked NDP MP David Christopherson.

“We are not aware of any legal agreement between Mr. Wright and Mr. Duffy,” Moore said in response.

Blanchette-Lamothe had this very precise question the next day: “Who else knew about the dealings between Mike Duffy and Nigel Wright?”

Said Moore: “Nigel Wright was the only one involved. That is what he said in his statement and that is why he resigned.”

On June 5, Harper said definitively that no one else in his office was told what Wright was up to.

“As I have said repeatedly, it was Mr. Wright who made the decision to take his personal funds and give those to Mr. Duffy so that Mr. Duffy could reimburse the taxpayers,” Harper said.

“Those were his decisions. They were not communicated to me or to members of my office.”

When the Commons returned to question period on Oct. 17, with RCMP documents now in the public domain, the message shifted, subtly but significantly. The phrase “sole responsibility” was applied to Wright, rather than suggesting he acted alone.

“Now that he has been contradicted by the police, does the prime minister wish to amend his evidence?” Deputy Liberal Leader Ralph Goodale challenged Harper last week.

“I already answered this question several months ago. I answered based on the information I had at that time,” Harper said. “Of course, the reality is that these actions were the responsibility of Mr. Wright.”

The meeting with Duffy

Harper’s critics suggest that Wright must have been given marching orders to fix the Duffy expenses mess to keep it from becoming a bigger political problem.

When Duffy told the Senate last week that he had a private meeting with Wright and Harper on Feb. 13 following a caucus meeting, the opposition seized on that as proof Wright wasn’t operating in a vacuum.

But the fact that the meeting even occurred took some time to come out, and Wright’s presence was never mentioned even when specific questions were asked over the months.

It was Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre, a parliamentary secretary at the time and a veteran question period defenceman, who on May 31 first made reference to the February conversation.

“The prime minister has always said that all inappropriate expenses would have to be repaid,” said Poilievre. “He said that to Mr. Duffy directly in February, and he has been saying it openly and publicly throughout Canada for a long time.”

“Was Nigel Wright present at the meeting between the prime minister and Mike Duffy or not?” NDP Leader Tom Mulcair asked the next day.

Harper replied: “I already said that I made my view known to the entire caucus and all my employees.”

Last week, now armed — thanks to Duffy’s explosive speech in the Senate — with the knowledge that Wright was part of the conversation between Harper and Duffy, Mulcair returned to the issue.

“Was Nigel Wright present when the prime minister instructed Mike Duffy to repay his expenses, end of discussion?” asked Mulcair.

For the first time, Harper acknowledged Wright was in the room.

“Once again, I have indicated that I made these statements in a caucus room,” said Harper. “I made them to an entire caucus and senior staff, not just to Mr. Duffy and to Mr. Wright but to many others who were present and who heard them.”

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