The video is somewhat faded after 34 years in the CBC library, but it’s pretty clear that the young man shown clapping enthusiastically at a political rally is Nigel Wright. Even at that young age, he was 18 at the time, he was active and dedicated to what was then the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada. Perhaps his friends back then were even prescient enough to predict that one day he would work his way up to be the Chief of Staff to a future Prime Minister. If so they would have been right because he did run the office of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. But as we all know the story didn’t end there and tomorrow Wright takes to the witness box in a trial that underscores the biggest scandal of the Harper years.
When we started looking for file video of Wright for a piece we’re doing on tonight’s National, we knew it would be a challenge. Those who ply the halls behind power are supposed to stay out of the public eye — and few were better at doing that than Wright. So when video archivist Greg Hobbs excitedly announced he’d found Wright in a crowd shot from 1981, we knew we had to write it into the story. But there was more to the find. Guess who else was in that same room just a few metres away? A young reporter by the name of Mike Duffy. The same Mike Duffy, by 2010 a Senator, whose trial it is where Nigel Wright now finds himself the star witness.
The basic arc of the story is well known by now — Duffy stands accused of 31 charges including fraud, breach of trust and bribery. And Wright, cleared of wrongdoing by the RCMP, is a witness because he took $90,000 out of his own pocket, not to lend Duffy, but to GIVE Duffy, so the now suspended Senator could pay off the debt senate officials said he owed to taxpayers.
Let me repeat that. His own money. Not a loan but a gift. $90,000.
Why would Stephen Harper’s Chief of Staff, arguably the most powerful unelected person in the country, do that? What exactly were the conversations Wright had with Harper before he cut the cheque? Emails have shown the two did have conversations, at least two of them, about how to resolve the Duffy expenses issue. When CTV’s Bob Fife broke the story in May of 2013, what really happened to Wright? Did he quit or was he fired? Harper has said both on separate occasions. As for Wright, he has said nothing. We all assume that is about to change when the courtroom questioning begins tomorrow.
No one who knows Nigel Wright — and after nearly four decades in partisan politics there are many — speaks ill of him. And we’re not just talking about Conservatives. I’ve personally spoken to many from all three parties who know Wright, as well as countless business people, all of whom have worked with him during his private sector service. Without exception they praise the man — speak of his loyalty and, above all his honesty.
Which makes this story all the more puzzling. What really happened through all this — and will this latest testimony at the Duffy trial help us understand?
Watch The National on Tuesday for Peter Mansbridge’s full story on Nigel Wright.