The circle closes in around PMO chief of staff Ray Novak

The reported memory of one former PMO advisor suggests another chief of staff to the Prime Minister, Ray Novak, knew about a payment to Mike Duffy
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Chief of Staff Ray Novak stands along the wall as he watches the prime minister speak to members of Caucus on Parliament Hill Tuesday May 21, 2013 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Among the emails that emerged last week through the trial of Mike Duffy was a two-sentence missive from Nigel Wright to Benjamin Perrin, then a special adviser to the Prime Minister, and Ray Novak, principal secretary to the Prime Minister at the time and now Stephen Harper’s chief of staff.

“I think her approach works,” Wright wrote on the morning of March 23, 2013, referring to Duffy’s lawyer, Janice Payne. “I will send my cheque on Monday.”

This seemed to suggest that Ray Novak, Harper’s highest-ranking and longest-serving aide, would have been aware of Wright’s payment to Sen. Duffy. But Conservative spokesman Kory Teneycke told reporters that Novak had not seen the email in question. “This wasn’t a file that Ray was ever managing, or particularly a part of, and he was unaware,” Teneycke said.

Teneycke also said it was “unfathomable” that Novak would have known about Wright’s decision and not informed the Prime Minister.

But now there is a new allegation of Novak’s knowledge. In court this afternoon, Duffy’s lawyer, Donald Bayne, read excerpts of an interview between Perrin and RCMP Sgt. Greg Horton. In the interview, Perrin apparently recalled meeting with Wright and Novak, and a conference call with Payne that followed*.

“Ray Novak was also there on the call when Nigel Wright said to Janice Payne he would do it,” Perrin said, according to Bayne’s account.

But Horton then apparently said, “Ray, in his interview last week, said that he wasn’t aware at this time that Nigel was going to repay the money.”

“Nigel says, ‘I think her approach works’—this is referring to her sending a letter, and he says I will send my cheque on Monday,” Perrin said, seemingly of the March 23 email.

“And that’s to who sorry?” Horton asked.

“To Ray Novak and myself,” Perrin said, “and Ray was in that meeting and Ray heard this and I remember looking at Ray to see his reaction.”

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Teneycke told reporters last week that Novak heard the first part of the conference call, but did not hear discussion of Wright’s cheque. Wright told the court today that Novak might have dropped into the office at some point, but was otherwise not on the call.

A previous accounting of who knew about Wright’s payment was contained in an RCMP filing that was made public in July 2013. In that filing, it was relayed that Wright’s lawyer had informed the RCMP that three other members of the PMO were aware: Perrin, Chris Woodcock (director of issues management in the PMO) and David van Hemmen (Wright’s executive assistant).

Wright’s accounting was noted by the Prime Minister in the House of Commons a few months later.

“Mr. Wright has been absolutely clear in terms of who he told he intended to repay Mr. Duffy’s expenses to,” Harper said on Oct. 23, 2013. “He did not say Ray Novak was one of those people. He has named those people. He has been very clear. He has also been very clear that one of those people was not me, because I obviously would never have approved such a scheme.”

In Perrin’s February 2014 interview, he apparently admitted to being surprised when Novak was not referenced in that RCMP filing. “I’ve actually been shocked when I saw the [information to obtain filing] coming out saying who knew, because Ray Novak was not listed in that, okay?” he said to Horton.

Last Friday, Harper explained his view of the situation in his office. “These are the actions of Mr. Duffy and Mr. Wright,” he said. “You hold people responsible for their own actions; you certainly don’t hold subordinates responsible for the actions of their superiors . . . These are the two people who are responsible and they are being held accountable.”

Asked this morning about what transpired in the PMO, the Prime Minister repeated that Duffy and Wright are the individuals responsible. “I’m certainly not going to comment on ongoing matters before the court that are being disputed,” he said. “But the fact of the matter is this: It was Mr. Duffy’s responsibility to repay his expenses. Mr. Duffy did not do so. Mr. Wright permitted him not to do so. These are the individuals I consider responsible and they are being held fully accountable for their actions.”

Wright also told the court on Tuesday that he had exchanged instant messages with Novak as recently as about two weeks ago.

Novak has been by Harper’s side since 2001, serving first as his executive assistant and, semi-famously, living above the garage at Stornoway when Harper was leader of the Opposition. He was named principal secretary—perhaps the second-highest post in the PMO—in 2008 and he became Harper’s chief of staff after Wright resigned over the revelation of a payment to Duffy.

Novak’s unparalleled history with Harper might be matched by the high regard in which he has been held.

“Ray is the common sense around the table,” one government official told Maclean’s in 2010.

“It will sound to you like I am gushing, but I think you would have to look very, very, very hard to find anyone who will say a negative thing about him,” added a ministerial aide.

“It’s a macho business,” said one former member of the PMO. “It’s a field where you’re allowed to be bombastic on the public stage, and that tends to result in people being bombastic privately within offices. It’s very useful to have somebody who is a calming influence, a stabilizing influence and a focused influence, who simply is there to get the job done and to carry things through to completion.”

 *This sentence has been clarified.

With files from Nicholas Köhler

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