The Duffy trial has broken early and will only resume roughly one month after the federal election, putting an end to the fresh testimony that has dogged the Conservatives on the campaign trail.
The Crown has finished calling witnesses who worked in the Prime Minister’s Office, and scheduling issues related to the next witness’s health put an early end to the hearings this week. Ontario Court Justice Charles Vaillancourt agreed to break until the trial resumes for five weeks of previously scheduled hearings on Nov. 18, well after the Oct. 19 general election.
The pause in Senator Mike Duffy’s trial on charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery closes 10 days of testimony that have weighed down the Conservative campaign in the middle of August. Stephen Harper’s party will feel relief that the daily drip of stories about cover-up and calculation inside the PMO will no longer dog their daily events.
But the latest phase of the trial has left scars. A recent Nanos Research poll of 1,000 Canadians found that more than half say their view of the Conservative government has deteriorated because of what they heard of the trial.
The survey found 55.3 per cent said their views of the Conservative government are more negative or somewhat more negative because of the testimony. While 35.8 per cent said their views are unchanged, only 6.1 per cent said their views are more positive or somewhat more positive after the testimony. The poll is accurate within 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
The trial has heard from former Harper chief of staff Nigel Wright, who testified he never told the Prime Minister that he, not Mr. Duffy, had covered the $90,172.24 cost of the Senator’s questionable housing expenses.
Still, his six days in the witness box provided an unflattering peek into damage-control efforts in the PMO.
The testimony detailed efforts to script Senate reports and plans to rig Senate committees; efforts to convince Mr. Duffy not to co-operate with auditors and the media; the dispatching of another Senator, Irving Gerstein, to obtain a leak through “senior contacts” of the unpublished conclusion of an independent audit – not to mention the basic cover-up of arranging for the Conservative Party and, in the end, Mr. Wright to pay for the impugned expenses. At the time, the government told the public that Mr. Duffy did the right thing and repaid them himself.
Former PMO legal counsel Ben Perrin also testified in detail that Mr. Harper’s current chief of staff, Ray Novak, heard twice of Mr. Wright’s plan to pick up the tab – despite repeated denials from Conservative officials that Mr. Novak knew of the deal.
Mr. Harper has repeatedly dodged questions on the issue, but the persistent questions have nevertheless sidetracked his campaigns. The Conservatives now hope to put this affair in the past and move the campaign to other issues, which has been facilitated by the early break in the trial.
Gerald Donohue, whose health is deteriorating, was subpoenaed to testify this week about contracts totalling $65,000 that two of his companies received from Mr. Duffy’s Senate budget. However, the Crown and the defence agreed it would be best for Mr. Donohue to appear in a way that would ensure that he could be examined and cross-examined during the same time frame. Given that he could only testify for half a day, every second day, there was not enough time to hear Mr. Donohue this week.
The last former Conservative staffer to appear at the trial was Chris Woodcock, who had been director of issues management in the PMO. In his examination by Crown prosecutor Jason Neubauer on Monday, Mr. Woodcock laid out his role in the strategy to keep Mr. Duffy out of the media limelight while a plan to reimburse taxpayers for his controversial expenses was devised.
In his cross-examination, defence lawyer Donald Bayne used the ex-Conservative staffer’s own words to argue that Mr. Duffy did not want to publicly admit that he had mishandled his expenses and had to pay them back.
When he spoke to RCMP investigators some months ago, Mr. Woodcock acknowledged that the PMO wanted to “force,” “convince” and “persuade” Mr. Duffy to repay his expenses in February, 2013, the court was told.
Mr. Woodcock said on Tuesday he still agreed with what he said in his police statement.
“There was definitely an effort that was required to persuade Mr. Duffy before he agreed to go out and repay,” Mr. Woodcock testified.
Mr. Bayne is trying to convince Justice Vaillancourt that Mr. Duffy did not take a bribe when he accepted the money from Mr. Wright, and that he only grudgingly participated in the plan to repay his expenses.
OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail
Published Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2015 11:48AM EDT
Last updated Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2015 10:07PM EDT