OTTAWA – Stephen Harper was likely breathing a little easier Tuesday after RCMP investigators declared they would not be pursuing criminal charges against Nigel Wright, the prime minister’s former chief of staff.
But even without the threat of a high-profile court case hanging over him in the run-up to the 2015 election, Harper could still face resentment within Conservative circles for the way he treated a once-favoured adviser.
And Wright could yet reveal more details about what went on behind the scenes, when the Prime Minister’s Office worked with its allies in the Senate to whitewash a report into Sen. Mike Duffy’s contested living expenses.
Wright, who lost his job after writing a $90,000 cheque to cover Duffy’s disallowed housing claims, always maintained he was acting in the public interest.
He repeated that sentiment in a statement released late Tuesday afternoon.
“My intention was to secure the repayment of taxpayer funds. I believed that my actions were always in the public interest and lawful,” said Wright, who also provided myriad documents to the Mounties for their investigation.
“The outcome of the RCMP’s detailed and thorough investigation has now upheld my position.”
Originally, the government too framed Wright as a good-hearted man who just wanted to save the taxpayers money. His resignation a year ago was initially characterized by the PMO as being accepted grudgingly, with regret.
Over time, however, that story changed. Eventually, Harper said Wright had been “dismissed,” and repudiated him in the House of Commons.
“On our side there is one person responsible for this deception and that person is Mr. Wright,” Harper said. “It is Mr. Wright by his own admission.”
Harper went on to tell Postmedia News in an interview that the whole sordid affair left him with “a sense of anger, betrayal, disappointment, deception.”
On the other hand, Conservative Sen. Irving Gerstein — who was aware of the plan to reimburse Duffy and was even willing at one point to let the party foot what was a $32,000 bill at the time — has never received any public rebuke from Harper.
Meanwhile, Wright’s high-placed friends in political and business circles began to speak out. Cabinet ministers Peter MacKay and Jason Kenney appeared to break ranks with Harper, hailing Wright publicly as an upstanding person.
They and Wright enjoyed a moment of vindication Tuesday when the RCMP said the evidence in hand “does not support criminal charges” against Wright.
“When the RCMP initiated the investigation, there were sufficient grounds to pursue the matter with regards to the offences of breach of trust, bribery, frauds on the government, as well as receiving prohibited compensation contrary to the Parliament of Canada Act,” Cpl. Lucy Shorey said in a statement.
“Upon completion of the investigation, we have concluded that the evidence gathered does not support criminal charges against Mr. Wright.”
The news also prompted a swift — if anodyne — statement Tuesday from the Prime Minister’s Office.
“We are pleased the RCMP has made progress in their work,” it said. “The Prime Minister’s Office will continue offering every possible assistance to the RCMP’s investigation.”
The office of the conflict of interest and ethics commissioner says it is resuming its own investigation into Wright’s actions, now that the Mounties have finished their work.
One central question remains: whether Duffy himself will face charges. The disgraced senator has long maintained that he agreed to pay back his expenses, with reimbursement, under duress by the PMO and the Senate leadership.
He has insisted he broke no rules; two different audit firms have pointed to a lack of clarity around the Senate’s rules on residency.
In February, former Liberal senator Mac Harb and former Conservative senator Patrick Brazeau were charged with one count each of fraud and breach of trust — the first criminal charges to emerge from the scandal.
In the cases of Duffy, Brazeau and Harb, the controversy revolves around their claiming living expenses for secondary residences in the national capital region, where they spent much more time than at their primary residences.
The Mounties also continue to investigate allegedly fraudulent travel expenses claimed by Sen. Pamela Wallin, who was drummed out of the Conservative caucus along with Duffy and Brazeau.
The Senate voted to suspend the three former Conservatives in November. Harb resigned from the Senate last summer.