The Conservatives’ damage control deals: Mike Duffy’s not the first case

Paul Wells on Alan Riddell and the 2006 federal election
Senator Mike Duffy arrives on Parliament Hill for a meeting of the Senate Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration committee on Parliament Hill on May 9, 2013 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Sean Kilpatrick/CP

Yesterday’s bizarre news — that the Nigel Wright-Mike Duffy cheque was, according to an investigating RCMP officer’s affidavit, the culmination of a long process involving a handful of PMO and Conservative Party worthies — raises a lot of questions. One striking element is the participants’ apparent comfort with using Conservative Party funds to make political problems go away. In the end, that didn’t happen here, although apparently only because Duffy’s debts exceeded the Conservatives’ comfort with digging into the kitty for damage control.

Is $30,000, the amount mentioned in the RCMP memo, the upper limit of the Conservative bailout fund’s elasticity? Has anything like this happened before?

Turns out the ceiling is demonstrably at least a little higher than $30,000. And we know that because something rather similar to the Wright-Duffy deal did happen before, at the dawn of the Harper years. That case wound up in court, and the events that guided the judge were rather different from the version peddled publicly by party officials.

At the beginning of the campaign for the 2006 election, an Ottawa lawyer named Alan Riddell stepped aside as the Conservatives’ nominated candidate in the Ottawa South riding. The party wanted to run Alan Cutler, a public servant who had blown the whistle on the Liberal sponsorship scandal, in the riding. Besides, as a candidate Riddell was, to some extent, less than ideal. He had run for the Conservatives in 2004 and lost after the Ottawa Sun ran an embarrassing story about a prank Riddell had played in his student days. (He’d dressed up as a character from Hogan’s Heroes, and I don’t mean Corporal LeBeau. A bit of a no-no, in retrospect.) After he lost the Sun retracted much of its story, but the damage was done. So, under some pressure from the party in 2006, Riddell dropped out, the party thanked him for his efforts, and Cutler became the candidate.

Then a CBC reporter asked Riddell why he had pulled out of the race so late. Riddell replied that the party made it easy by agreeing to cover his campaign expenses. He put the cost at about $50,000. Reporters following Harper on the campaign trail promptly asked him about the deal with Riddell. “In fact there is no agreement and he hasn’t been paid anything,” Harper said. When asked again later that day — it was the end of 2005 and Harper was still the kind of guy who might deign to scrum twice in one day — he repeated himself: “The party does not have an agreement to pay Mr. Riddell these expenses, and Mr. Riddell has not been paid anything to date.”

Unfortunately for Harper’s version of events, there was an email trail, which somebody on Riddell’s campaign promptly leaked to reporters. Riddell wound up suing the party for his expenses. On January 11, 2007, Judge Denis Power of Ontario Superior Court ruled “that Alan M. Riddell and the Conservative Party of Canada entered into a binding agreement on November 25, 2005.” He could hardly reach any other conclusion. Among the evidence produced in court was a November 25 email from Mike Donison, the Conservatives’ former director general, to Riddell’s lawyer. The email read, in part: “There is now a binding agreement between Mr. Riddell and the Conservative Party of Canada.”

Donison and Don Plett, the party’s former president, testified that Riddell had cancelled the agreement by speaking about it to reporters. But they were unable to produce a scrap of written evidence of such a confidentiality clause.

How much did Harper know about the deal? Apparently a fair bit. In testimony at trial, Don Plett, the party’s former president, said he and other party officials had met with Riddell on November 21. “We assure[d] Mr. Riddell that we were representatives there representing, among others, the Prime Minister, at that time the Leader of the Opposition,” Plett testified. “Ian Brodie made it quite clear that’s who he was representing when he came. We discussed some financial compensation, paying Alan Riddell’s nomination expenses.” The evidence also included an earlier email from Donison to Ray Novak, Harper’s closest advisor and future chief of staff, informing him of the status of negotiations. (“He truly is an idiot,” Donison writes in that email, referring to Riddell.)

So it was clear there was a “binding agreement.” It was clear Harper was in the loop. And it was clear that, even after his party’s private business became public, Harper preferred to claim there was no such business. This story is worth repeating because it demonstrates again two of Harper’s work habits: a preoccupation with confidentiality and a willingness to use money to make a problem go away.

Does 2006 prove anything about 2013? Of course not. To me it’s plausible that the lesson Harper might draw from the Riddell affair was that he must never be told of such matters. But the party’s willingness to apply money to problems seems to persist.