Wright broke ethics rules during Duffy affair: report
OTTAWA — Former prime minister Stephen Harper’s one-time chief of staff was never prosecuted for his role in Mike Duffy’s Senate expenses fiasco, but now Nigel Wright is getting a belated slap on the wrist from the federal ethics watchdog.
In a long-awaited report released Thursday, ethics commissioner Mary Dawson says Wright broke both the Parliament of Canada Act and the Conflict of Interest Act when he personally gave Duffy $90,000 to repay the Senate for questionable living expense claims.
By giving Duffy the money as part of an agreement in which the senator was to reimburse the Senate and acknowledge the error of his ways, Dawson says, “Mr. Wright was improperly furthering Sen. Duffy’s private interests,” sparing him the need to use his own funds. That’s a violation of conflict of interest rules.
Moreover, she says Wright broke another section of the act when he used his position as Harper’s right-hand man to try to influence Conservative bagman Sen. Irving Gerstein and the Conservative Fund Canada to dip into party coffers to reimburse Duffy’s expenses.
Wright never faced any criminal charges for his role in the affair, although Duffy was charged with 31 counts of fraud, breach of trust and bribery. Wright was a prosecution witness during the subsequent trial, which ended last spring with Duffy being found not guilty of all charges.
Questions have long persisted about how Duffy could have been charged with accepting a bribe when Wright was not charged with offering one.
And the RCMP has faced criticism for failing to charge Wright under the Parliament of Canada Act, which some parliamentary law experts believed would have been more likely to secure a conviction. A never-used provision of the act stipulates that it’s an indictable offence to offer compensation to a sitting senator in regard to “any claim, controversy, arrest or other matter before the Senate.”
In her report, Dawson notes that Wright’s payment to Duffy “was serious enough” to prompt the RCMP to at least consider laying charges under the Parliament of Canada Act.
“Although the issue of illegality was not pursued, I would consider such an act to be undoubtedly improper,” she says.
New Democrat MP Charlie Angus, who has pressured the RCMP to explain why it did not charge Wright under the act, was pleased that Dawson addressed the matter.
“The question is going to be asked, whenever we talk about this case in decades to come, they’re going to say, ‘Why did the RCMP ignore the most obvious piece of legislation that perfectly explained the crime that had been committed in the Prime Minister’s Office?’” he said.
Other than publicly shaming public office holders who breach the Conflict of Interest Act, Dawson has no power to impose sanctions or penalties.
While he praised Dawson’s “excellent report, Angus doubted it will give people much comfort. “In fact, I think it’s just going make Canadians more cynical about the political process,” he said. “Canadians know what happened was wrong and there’s no consequences.”
Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch, said the report is “too little, too late.” His advocacy group intends to initiate a private criminal prosecution of Wright for “corruptly” making the payment to Duffy.