The mystery of the February 20 email

The most intriguing document in the Duffy-Wright affair

On Tuesday night, CTV’s sources said the Prime Minister’s Office was withholding from the RCMP an email dated February 20 that describes the arrangement between Mike Duffy and Nigel Wright. On Wednesday, the Prime Minister’s Office said the RCMP had not asked for the email.

“Contrary to CTV’s reporting, our office has not been asked for this email,” spokesperson Julie Vaux said in an email statement. “As we have always said, we will assist investigations into this matter.”

The RCMP might not have asked for this email, but the opposition has.

Here is Justin Trudeau’s fifth question on May 22.

Mr. Speaker, yesterday the minister said that no document exists about the secret payoff between the PMO and Senator Duffy. Let me rephrase that. An email, which in fact does exist, describes the secret agreement. To help the government find it, I will say it was dated February 20, 2013, and it is currently in the possession of the Prime Minister’s Office. Let me cover all the bases here. Will the government commit to releasing this and any other email or document, electronic or otherwise, that relates to the secret deal between the PMO and Senator Duffy?

The NDP’s Francoise Boivin picked up on the February 20 email the next day.

Mr. Speaker, in just one week, the Prime Minister went from having full confidence in his former chief of staff to being “not happy”. That is quite an about-face. The Conservatives are quite specific in their denial. They deny the existence of any legal documents, but they have nothing to say about the February 20 email. Does the Prime Minister’s Office have any document—a memo, a handwritten or electronic note, an email, a PIN, a BBM, a fax, anything—regarding Nigel Wright’s $90,000 payment to Mike Duffy?

In his response, James Moore said the government was “not aware of any kind of legal document or agreement.”

Two questions later, Ralph Goodale gave it a try.

Mr. Speaker, any payment to anyone to influence the conduct of a senator is an indictable offence carrying jail time as a penalty under both the Parliament of Canada Act and the Criminal Code. It should not take a week to figure that out. Throwing Wright and Duffy under the bus does not make the corruption go away. The whole illicit scheme is outlined in an email, dated February 20. The Prime Minister’s Office has that email. Will they table it today?

In his response, Mr. Moore said the government was “not aware of any legal agreement … whatsoever, in any format whatsoever.”

Thomas Mulcair’s first question on the matter asked the government to “release all documents related to this secret backroom deal.” Mr. Trudeau opened with a general demand of “Show us the documents.” A week later, Mr. Mulcair asked the Prime Minister whether a search of Nigel Wright’s emails had been conducted. The NDP’s Lysane Blanchette-Lamothe asked if there was any “non-legal document regarding the $90,000 payment that Nigel Wright made to Mike Duffy” and asked if the government would commit to releasing “all the documents concerning the agreement between Nigel Wright and Mike Duffy.” Liberal MP Marc Garneau wondered when the government would “give Canadians a chance to see all of the documents for themselves.”

The Prime Minister’s director of communication now seems to admit to possessing second-hand knowledge of the February 20 email.

“My understanding is it is a paraphrase of conversations that happened,” he told CTV’s Ottawa Bureau Chief Robert Fife. “I’ve had them described to me from someone who is no longer here.”

So is the Prime Minister’s Office in possession of said email? That’s unclear.

Were Conservative members of the ethics committee so curious, they might’ve voted to convene hearings into the matter and conceivably made an order for documents. There were as well two order paper questions filed by Mr. Trudeau that sought records “regarding the letter of understanding between the Prime Minister’s former Chief of Staff, Nigel Wright, and Senator Mike Duffy regarding the payment of $90,127 to cover Senator Duffy’s living expenses.”

There is probably a useful discussion to be had about the standard of disclosure we should expect—both realistically and philosophically—from our government, whether they should necessarily have to be compelled by demand of Parliament or law to release documents or whether some level of voluntary disclosure should be expected. Of course, if the PMO released a pile of documents tomorrow, we might have to wonder whether we were being allowed to see all relevant documents or only those that the PMO wished us to see.

In the case of the February 20 email though, if it exists and if it is in the possession of the Prime Minister’s Office, it has been asked for. Just apparently not in a way that the Prime Minister’s Office is compelled to release it.