Time to run for cover
In his bid to survive the Nigel Wright-Mike Duffy affair, Stephen Harper has clung assiduously to the lone gunman theory.
Harper has repeated that mantra time and again — his former chief of staff cut a $90,000 cheque to the disgraced former Conservative senator on his own, without the prime minister’s knowledge.
The best way to destabilize the Harper argument is to involve as many others players as possible, making it appear to be a conspiracy in the Prime Minister’s Office and beyond, making it increasingly impossible for Canadians to believe this elaborate operation could have unfolded without Harper knowing what was happening in his own office.
It helps, as well, if some of those involved could be considered especially close to the prime minister, so that they might be known generically as “Harper loyalists.”
We also know that Duffy has previously promised that more details in this affair would become public. He has offered a sardonic nod to reporters to “stay tuned,” because only the former broadcaster and former Conservative senator knew where the bodies were buried.
We may have arrived at this point.
Those close to this sordid tale believe the man from P.E.I., who has complained long and loud about being hung out to dry by the prime minister, is embarking on his scorched earth policy and will take down as many with him as he can.
As reported by the CTV’s indefatigable Robert Fife, Wright used two key Conservative senators in his campaign to get a reluctant Duffy to accept the cheque to pay back money he had inappropriately claimed.
David Tkachuk, the Saskatchewan senator who until recently headed the Senate’s internal economy committee, told Duffy, according to the CTV report, the Senate committee would go easy on him if he accepted the Wright offer. If he balked, CTV reported, Tkachuk told him he would lose his Senate seat.
That is the same Tkachuk whom Pamela Wallin, another former Conservative senator living under an expense cloud, accused of counselling her to go back and “restrict” information on her calendar of events when she was being audited.
The other senator implicated in the CTV report is Carolyn Stewart-Olsen, a Harper confidante and his former director of strategic communications.
The emails cited by CTV also brought former Harper communications director Angelo Persichilli into the mix.
This was all met with a torrent of denials and qualifications this week, but the Harper narrative has been destabilized.
We already knew an RCMP affidavit says Wright recalled telling three other senior members of Harper’s office about the payment.
If Tkachuk and Stewart-Olsen are proved to have discussed the matter with Wright, then the Harper saga gets even more wobbly because it has now moved outside of his inner sanctum.
Harper has maintained Wright did not discuss the payment with him or anyone else.
“If you read the affidavit it makes very cleared that the decision to pay money to Mr. Duffy out of Mr. Wright’s personal funds was made solely by Mr. Wright and was his responsibility,” Harper said last month. “Obviously, had I known about this earlier I would never have allowed this to take place.’’
Stewart-Olsen said she had no knowledge of any deal between Duffy and Wright or any knowledge that Wright was prepared to use his own money to help Duffy.
Later she and Tkachuk issued a joint statement: “The CTV News report is false. At no time did we have knowledge of Mr. Wright’s payment to Sen. Duffy before it was reported publicly.
“Anyone who suggests that we were aware of Mr. Wright’s payment to Sen. Duffy before it was reported publicly is lying.”
Why would Persichilli, who had been out of Harper’s office for almost a year, draw himself back into such a toxic mix?
The former Toronto Star columnist — now a citizenship judge — cited “friendship,” saying he urged Duffy to make good on his debt to the Senate. Friendship, by the way, was the same early rationale offered for Wright opening his chequebook for Duffy.
It raises the question of how many “friends” Duffy has in high places, although in this case, those who know the senator and the newly minted judge say there actually was a friendship here, dating back more than a decade.
Persichilli said on Tuesday that he knew nothing of a Wright payment to Duffy.
“It was a personal call to a good friend,’’ he said. “You don’t drop good friends when they have difficulties.”
To quote Duffy, “stay tuned.” The target of this story is at the top of the heap. We don’t know how many more “friends,” Duffy has, but those who believe they are on that list might want to duck.
Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.