Nigel Wright: Watching the story, part of the story

In Courtroom 33, the Crown’s star witness became an issues management director writ small — turning every question to his favour

Nigel Wright, former chief of staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, arrives at the courthouse in Ottawa on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2015 for his second day of testimony at the criminal trial of embattled Sen. Mike Duffy. (Fred Chartrand/CP)

Nigel Wright, former chief of staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, arrives at the courthouse in Ottawa on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2015 for his second day of testimony at the criminal trial of embattled Sen. Mike Duffy. (Fred Chartrand/CP)

Crown prosecutor Mark Holmes rose to his feet to object to a defence question today, and took the opportunity to undam a flood of upset against the gathered news media instead.

“This seems to be entirely politically motivated,” Holmes said, the opening volley in a short but densely packed critique of Donald Bayne, who represents Sen. Mike Duffy, and his tendency to pander to journalists.

Prompting the challenge was an attempt by Bayne to trap Nigel Wright, the Crown’s star witness, into admitting he told Stephen Harper he personally gave Duffy $90,000.

“Mr. Duffy and Mr. Bayne may have an agenda, but I don’t think the court should be party to it,” Holmes told Justice Charles Vaillancourt, whose ultimate decision to permit Bayne to continue may or may not have had something to do with an assessment of Wright’s own agenda, and his ability to advance it no matter what Bayne asked.

Before Vaillancourt rendered that decision, and while Holmes and Bayne still had some sparring to do, Wright, Harper’s former chief of staff, was invited to step from the room.

His departure allowed Bayne to say of his “friend”: “Mr. Holmes shouldn’t let his anger get the better of him.”

Bayne argued that the line of questioning he was putting to Wright was “relevant to the man’s credibility.” He might also have noted how he was just coming to the point of springing a trap he’d spent much of the day preparing.

Earlier, Bayne had led Wright into calling his move to fund Duffy’s $90K payment a “personal decision.”

    Now he was using a May 14, 2013, email Wright sent to Chris Woodcock, director of issues management in the PMO, in which Wright said the Prime Minister “knows, in broad terms only, that I personally assisted Duffy when I was getting him to agree to repay the expenses,” as the basis of a question about just what Wright told the PM.

    Holmes, for his part, called this subject matter “immaterial,” compared Bayne’s cross to email evidence in which Duffy appears to utter threats of “visiting political consequences” on Harper, and pointed out that yesterday Bayne, citing Browne v Dunn, read sensational portions of former PMO lawyer Benjamin Perrin’s RCMP statement, but then used it as a basis to pose no questions—an indication, Holmes said, that Bayne’s aim was to use the Perrin revelations to fuel a new “media cycle.” He gestured toward the benches in Courtroom 33, telling Vaillancourt: “That’s why most of these people are here.”

    It was true, there were lots of reporters—sluts and vermin, to quote Barbara Amiel.

    Nevertheless, if we’re to take Holmes’s commentary seriously—and maybe we shouldn’t, since it is also safe to say that Bayne isn’t the only wily lawyer in this room—the Duffy proceedings are no different from any other criminal matter. Just with a much bigger audience.

    But of course, it ain’t.

    Much has been made of the political nature of this trial, a test of the 31 charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust arrayed against Duffy, who’s pleaded not guilty to all.

    There are those in Courtroom 33—and maybe Holmes is among them—who believe the 4½ days Bayne cross-examined Wright had little at all to do with the criminal counts facing Duffy, and everything to do with the federal election that’s now under way. Bayne and Duffy’s aim has been to disrupt that election, and Harper’s ability to advance his campaign, according to this view, and that has distorted the process—never more so than during Wright’s appearance in the witness box.

    Which is fair comment. Except that Wright himself remained throughout his time in Courtroom 33 a political player too, his responses during examination-in-chief were a tract designed to show the Tories in the best possible light, his conduct under cross-examination an attempt to limit the political damage. Or so it seemed.

      To be an observer in Courtroom 33, then, was akin to viewing busted binoculars via the lens of a shattered spyglass, squinting, trying to correct for the crooked mirrors.

      Wright, who left court for the last time today, at least for these proceedings—”I’m quite sure, sir, you will be glad hear the words, ‘you’re free to go,’ ” the judge told him, for he looked positively spent—took several hits to his credibility, and seemed to do so willingly. There were times when a direct answer seemed obvious, but when court did not end up hearing that obvious response.

      Over the course of these last few days Wright suggested he’d redacted emails linking the Duffy matter to the PM because, as “policy” discussions, he did not believe them germane to an ethics commissioner’s probe. Wright allowed Harper aide Ray Novak’s presence in the room during a crucial phone call to slip his mind.

      And he resorted to outlandish verbal constructions to avoid saying that he personally paid for Duffy’s questionable expense claims.

      “I knew we wanted people to understand that Sen. Duffy had repaid, and I knew I had put him with funds,” he said.


      Bayne pointed out the numerous times that media talking points and other communications scripted by the PMO repeated the inaccuracy that Duffy had paid his own way out of this crisis, and he asked Wright whether this wasn’t a misrepresentation of the facts.

      Wright supposed that it was, but added: “I just didn’t think it was a bad misrepresentation.”

      Someone might have reminded Holmes that yesterday’s stories about the Perrin statement—which made clear Perrin’s view that Harper’s closest aides was aware Wright was paying Duffy’s $90K payment—merely displaced another damning story developed in Bayne’s cross. That one concerned apparent PMO efforts to meddle in an external Deloitte audit looking at Duffy’s expenses, and to control what language went into a related Senate audit report.

      And anyway, Wright didn’t need Holmes’s help handling Bayne.

      Wright didn’t have much on his side, but he used all he had, one thing being his wits, which are formidable. Wright became an issues management director writ small, managing his own little space, which was the witness box. As adeptly as an old hand he turned every question he received around, enlisting it in his favour.

      At one point Bayne asked Wright about Sen. Marjory LeBreton’s email to him from May 9, 2013, demanding that he get rid of Duffy, who’d just shown up at a committee meeting at the height of media interest in him—and Senate disapprobation—and was making a scene.

      To which Wright responded: “We are on it.”

      “What are you on?” Bayne asked him.

      “On trying to protect Sen. Duffy from the media,” Wright replied.

      There’s that word again—media. Watching the story but part of the story and this trial.

      Meanwhile, Wright was never, and isn’t now, “on” the job of protecting the Tory party, or the government, or Harper. Not at all.

      Court reporter Nicholas Köhler on the Duffy trial

      Looking for more?

      Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.